Wednesday, 18 July 2018

On to Wordpress

Hello to any readers out there. This is a notification that I have moved my blog over to Wordpress. You can find it here:

Please bear with me for a while, as some of the formatting from the posts I shifted from Blogger are a bit funky. I'll be working out the kinks shortly and I intend to increase my posts to at least one per week in an attempt to catch up with the backlog (I'm over a year behind schedule now!).


Friday, 1 June 2018

Vietnam, day 19: In Which Pineapples Are Tricky

Hoi An, Vietnam
1 June, 2017
After a few days in Hoi An, we finally decided to visit some of the old houses and assembly halls that the town is famous for. 
Shortly after setting out for the morning, we passed by a group of young men and women who were dressed up nicely posing for photos. I wondered if it was their school graduation, or perhaps even a wedding.

For breakfast, we leisurely supped on french toast with pineapple jam, fruit, and tea at What Else Cafe. Though the day hadn’t heated up much, it was still nice to have the shade of umbrellas. 

On this day, we were determined to visit as many of the old houses and halls as we could, having been negligent in this area on previous days. The first we saw was the House of Tan Ky, which has housed seven generations of the family. We were given a brief history of the house by a guide, and provided with an informational booklet. Apparently, Le Tan Ky was “born an orphan at a very early age". 

The architecture was a mixture of Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese styles. While the house had many points of interest, one that particularly drew my attention was the columns that featured Chinese characters comprised of swooping abalone birds. Nearby was a case full of curiosities, including a Confucian Cup: a ceramic vessel that can be filled up to 80%, but not more or else the full contents flow out of the bottom. It’s not really intended to be drunk from, but rather stands as a metaphor for not being greedy. Even after reading a couple of explanations, I cannot understand how the physics of it works, but something something hydro-static pressure.

From there, we used Google Maps to find the Fujian Assembly Hall, but the app was foolish and led us around in circles. And that was supposedly one of the best halls! Alas, we had to abandon that particular quest. 

We did, however, find the Trung Hoa Assembly Hall without issue. Built in 1741, it's one of the oldest halls in Hoi An and originally housed Chinese immigrants, as well as serving as a place of worship for Thien Hau Holy Mother. 

Next up was the House of Quan Thang, which is three hundred years old. Ducking into the dimly lit interior, we had our ticket clipped by an extremely aged man. Unlike the House of Tan Ky, there were no tourists here, just us and the family.

In one room, we saw a kid doing his homework, with a fan whizzing away next to him.

The old man showed us a couple of the rooms, and then produced a worn notebook for us to read from. He was clearly learning English, and had written a long string of words such as 'shove', 'shovel', and 'pineapple'. He asked us if we would pronounce them for him, which we did. It seems that 'glove' and 'love' were difficult to get the hang of. Yannick asked if he could take the man's photo, and he gave us a very sweet smile. What a guy. 

The Tran Family Chapel was not a house nor a hall, but rather a place to worship the family members who had passed away.

Every year on the anniversary of their death, the family member's box is opened and incense is lit for them. After a brief wander around the chapel, we were given tea and very dry biscuits and then shown into a room where old coins and souvenirs were sold. 

Just down the road and along an alley, we found the famous Ba Le Well. Said to have been built in the tenth century, the water from this well is supposedly a bit magical (and stories of fairies persist). The keeper of the well is an elderly man who draws water from the well every day and delivers it to poor families. They use the water to make tea and soup - without the coveted well water, the traditional watercress soup is allegedly tasteless. Whispers that the well keeper is almost as old as the well itself are based around the supposed youth-giving effects of the special water.

At lunchtime we met up with Bridget and Jance for another round of banh mi at Banh Mi Phi! While eating, we were distracted by a cute and joyful baby at the next table. We soothed our spicily burning lips with cold soda water.

Practically next door was Ancient House, which was by far the largest of the ancient houses we had seen. Over 250 years old, the house is that of the Hong family, and I'm not sure why they decided to do away with having a personal name attached to the house, preferring to go with the most generic title possible. But even so, the house felt far from impersonal. We were shown around by a woman who explained to us a cool shutter system that was in place on some of the doors that allowed light and air to come in, but not prying thief hands. 

As well as a 92 year old woman who was having a rest in one of the rooms, we saw another boy doing his homework. The boy (Tom) became very interested in Yannick's camera, and once it was handed over, he snapped a billion photos as we passed from room to room. In the gift store, Bridget found a silver ring that she liked, while I bought a patterned top suitable for the hot climate. We were invited to sit, and shared green tea and more of those incredibly dry biscuits with the family.

Our tourist itch having been sufficiently scratched for the day, we returned to our hotel to rinse off the sweat and then paid Art Spa a visit. Over the previous days, we had been touted many times for spa experiences, but decided to look up reviews of the spas online before picking one. This turned out to be a good idea, because Art Spa was amazing! Yannick opted for a half hour head, back and shoulders massage, while I went all in and had a full-body tranquility massage. We started off with a relaxing foot bath, and then moved onto the massage tables. I wore paper underpants. It was my first ever professional massage, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. Afterwards, we were treated to homemade banana lollies and green tea (the tea was frankly disgusting, but we didn't mind because the experience was still overall amazing). We made sure to give Art Spa a glowing review.

That evening we chilled out and watched some Vikings episodes on Netflix.

Today's post was almost called: All the Halls - An Historic Day of Assembly

Monday, 30 April 2018

Vietnam, day 18: Mounting the Marvellous Mountains Most Marbelous

Hoi An, Vietnam
31 May, 2017
Anticipating a long day ahead of us, we made a beeline for Hoi An Roastery to tuck into some much needed breakfast. 
Yannick indulged in a coconut ice cream coffee with a side of croissant, while I had my customary green tea.
It was still rather early, and there was hardly anyone else out and about. We managed to find the hotel that Bridget and Jance were staying in, and were seated in the foyer in grand carved wooden chairs to await the tour guide for our trip to the Marble Mountains! Shortly, we were greeted by our guide, who was called Snail, and ushered into the van to begin the drive.

Though mainly uneventful, the last ten minutes or so of the drive provided brilliant views of the sea. 

The Marble Mountains are a cluster of five pinnacles, each named after one of the elements (fire, water, earth, wood, and metal). Our tour began at Thuy Son, the water mountain. The stone steps leading up the mountainside were steep and narrow, and I tried my best to pretend that my breathing was no heavier than normal to keep up appearances of (nonexistent) fitness.

Before I was able to catch my breath, it was dashed away even more by the breathtaking pagoda that was nestled amongst the cliffs and trees. Allegedly some of the pagodas on Thuy date back to the seventeenth century, though I'm not sure which ones. The detail of the designs and the brilliant green roof tiles were stunning.

Legend has it that long ago, a dragon emerged from the sea and laid an egg. After a thousand days and nights, the egg hatched to reveal a beautiful woman. She fucked off somewhere [citation needed], but the egg shell fragments grew and became the five mountains of Marble fame. Doncha just love myths? They're so weird! You can't make this shit up. (Or can you?)

Across a nearby moat was a lil gazebo which contained a statue of the Lady Buddha. We'll be seeing more of her later.

Then Snail led us into a cave! You'd think that might take a while, but he was a speedy terrestrial pulmonate gastropod mollusc (#teamsnail). The air was clouded with incense, and statues of various worship-worthy historical and spiritual figures loomed from the swirling vapours. It was nice to be able to escape inside a cave for a bit, as the temperatures had reached nearly 40C and we were sweating profusely. 

Continuing up the extremely narrow stairs and scrambling through a crack in the rock (loftily named the Gate of Heaven) we emerged into daylight at the summit of the mountain! While gazing up at the glorious pagoda, we were bewildered by a strange barking noise which sort of sounded like animal noises played through tinny speakers. Upon inspecting the rocky pool that the sounds were emanating from, we discovered that there were in fact no low quality speakers, but rather actual frogs. If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed that frogs could make those croaks. 

See! Those mountains totally look like eggshells right? Right. 

Next up was an archway that led to a sun-dappled walkway and a shrine. There was a gaggle of schoolchildren in this area, and some were whispering between themselves and glancing at me. The one with the most courage approached me and asked if she could take my photo. We posed for a selfie, and then the floodgates opened and I was inundated by the rest of the group lining up to take photos with me as well! I'm not entirely sure why they wanted my photo, but I did feel like I finally achieved my fifteen minutes of fame. Now I shall sink into insignificance for the remaining three quarters of my life.

Heading back inside the mountain, we stopped amongst a circle of shrines to learn many facts. I answered some pop quiz questions correctly and received many high fives! #teamsnail. We rubbed a lucky Buddha's belly and then trekked down a lot of stairs to reach the tour van. The stairs were very jungly and we were surprised by a couple of huge centipedes snaking their way along the steps. 

When I say huge, I mean huge. It was twice as long as a stapler, and not those mini neon-coloured ones that girls had in high school. According to Snail, they're not an indigenous species, and were brought to Vietnam to be used as fishing bait. As with most introduced species, their populations became a bit out of control (lookin' at you, gorse). They are venomous, causing dizziness and fever in humans, and death in small mammals.

From there, we were driven to a so-called marble factory, which just seemed to be a tourist shop filled with statues. As the Marble Mountains contain (surprise surprise) marble, as well as limestone, the purchase of ornaments constitutes a large portion of tourist spending. Whether these statues were made with marble from the area, or even marble at all, I was dubious of. A more cost-effective method would be to bulk import from a cheap seller and then pass the statues off as artisanal. After using the factory's toilet, we popped down the road to a noodle shop where we were provided with lunch. Snail was very nice, and made sure that I got a special tofu dish rather than the meat options that everyone else got. Sadly, it was then time to bid farewell to Snail, and we joined #teamturtle.

Unfortunately I'm sketchy on the details of this next part, but we saw another cave (Am Phu) with shrines and the like. Team Turtle was double the size of our last tour group, and we found the info less interesting so we wandered a bit away from the others. This cave had been designed to signify the eighteen levels of hell, and strangely enough (from what I can tell online) Am Phu resides inside Thuy Son. I'm not sure why we didn't visit Am Phu before lunch, when we were right there at the same mountain! But anyway, the decorations seemed much more gaudy, with neon lights and badly crafted figures. Turtle was telling stories for a long time, and we became very bored. The best part of visiting Am Phu was punching a gong we found. Perhaps we unknowingly summoned a demon. Once we all piled back into the van to move onto the next destination, Turtle asked if anyone had seen Bob. After a frantic search of the carpark, Bob the old Aussie dude turned up and we were able to carry on, resting assured that no one had been kidnapped or lost in the depths of hell. 

Further along the coast, we alighted at Monkey Mountain, where an enormous statue of the Lady Buddha was being spray-painted by two workmen (if you look closely you can see them suspended from long ropes near the hem of her robe).

We wandered about the courtyards and the temple, where I was once again asked to pose for a photo. This time I posed with a whole family, and felt a bit out of place. How would they explain who I am to people looking at the photo? Am I now immortalised forever on this family's mantlepiece, smiling on Monkey Mountain with strangers? It was a fairly surreal experience. As Yannick enjoyed an ice cream, we gazed out over the countryside and the South China Sea.

Later that evening, we emerged napped and showered from our hotel ready for dinner. Attempting to procure a table at Ms Ly 22, we were informed that they were very busy, and that we could return in twenty minutes. We took the opportunity to wander about Hoi An some more, and see all the beautiful lanterns.

Dinner was well worth the wait! I chowed down on a green papaya salad that was super delicious (and made with soy sauce rather than fish sauce - yay!), while Yannick sampled two local specialties: white rose, and Cao Lao, a Japanese-style noodle dish with pork and croutons. Seeing that they offered the Ancient Hoi An cocktail, we felt obliged to order one! Oddly, it was very different from the one we had the night before, but still extremely tasty. It was a lovely ending to a long day. 

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Vietnam, day 17: Liberating Cuba, One Drink at a Time

Hoi An, Vietnam
30 May 2017
On our second day in Hoi An, we had a slow start to the morning with a stroll. 
We were still unaccustomed to seeing so many attractive lanterns, and took too many photos accordingly.

For breakfast, we stopped at Espresso Station, where I enjoyed a refreshing strawberry lemonade, and Yannick had (can you guess?) ca phe sua da. From what I could tell, a speciality of the café was some sort of terrifyingly black and grainy drink that coated the teeth of those who were drinking it, making them look completely rotten.

Next up, we ran an errand! How un-holidayish. Except that it was a very holidayish errand, being that we were sending off a postcard to a loved one. The post shop itself was in a very old building, with a carved wooden ceiling and vintage fixtures.

Continuing our wanderings, we crossed the bridge to Cam Nam, the island that neighboured the one our hotel was on. The day was becoming very hot, and wasn't helped by the fact that a street we walked down had no shade, and many people were burning fake money by the roadside (so that their ancestors would have cash to blow in the afterlife). Fruit and flowers had been laid out along the way, and we saw that rice, candies and confetti had been thrown about, leading us to believe that perhaps there had been some sort of ceremony earlier that morning. Pathways off the main road led past houses down to the river, where locals moored their boats. There was more foliage by the river, which helped a little bit with the scorching sun, and we saw a beetle! It was bright blue, but in that metallic way that some bugs are.

As we walked further from the bridge leading to the old town, the more rural Cam Nam became, and we came across a greater proportion of fishermen, dirt paths, and trees (here's a jackfruit tree!). Eventually, we decided to turn back and the walk along the main, sun-soaked road felt like it took forever.

Crossing back into the old town, we passed by a few temples and found that the area just north of Cam Nam has a very French colonial feel, with the distinctive mustard-coloured buildings.

Like this!

Happening upon a tea shop, we were offered a free tasting and I jumped at the opportunity. The tea was quite delicate and fragrant, and even Yannick didn't mind it! (As he is a staunch tea-hater, that means that it was great tea.) I bought a lemongrass tea for Sue, one of our friends and former house sit hosts back in London.

Needing some sustenance and a break from the sun, we lunched at Karma Waters, a tiny vegan cafe. I opted for the burger, while Yannick slurped up a pho. The cafe's toilet was located in their back garden in an outhouse, and had no running water (only a bucket of water to pour in as a 'flush' function). We wandered around randoms streets some more on the way back to our hotel for a siesta. 

Dem lanterns, tho!
So aesthetic.

Some time later, we took a taxi to the beach: Bai Bien Cua Dai. After a brief episode of staring around helplessly, we found Bridget and Jance, and set off along the beach in search of a suitable hang out location. At regular intervals were different sets of beach chairs with umbrellas and little tables, each owned by a bar. Well...I say was more like a shack with one lady inside. We made our choice based solely on the fact that the lady seemed genuinely nice (and when you have so much choice, you kind of just have to pick one because weighing up the pros and cons of each would take far too much time). Each chair was 20,000VND, and we picked a few cocktails from the menu. It was my first time trying a banana daiquiri! Yannick was able to order his favourite cocktail: the Cuba Libre. When Bridget hired a towel from the beach shack lady, she sprinted off and over a dune, and we theorised that she may have been running to her home for unforeseen supplies. After all, with all that booze in the shack how could there be space for towels? After a while of lounging and watching the others swim, I saw a man leap into one of those small circular boats (a coracle). He used an oar, but not in the usual way. He kind of just wiggled it from side to side in a way that I thought was doomed to fail, but somehow was very effective! He clearly knows more about the physics of oars than I do.

With our beach itch scratched, we walked back towards the beach entrance and were surprised to find that it was swarming with beach-goers! Presumably, late afternoon was when all the locals flocked to the beach for a swim, just as we had experienced on Con Son island.

Finding a larger beachside bar (one that wasn't a shack), we ordered smoothies and milkshakes and rinsed the sand off our feet from a plastic water barrel.

Catching a taxi back to the old town, we wandered around some more (the crowds were out here too!).

A small night market had been assembled, and one guy on a motorbike flashed past us precariously balancing a tray of full soup bowls. He had to dodge so many people, and the soup was sloshing around a lot. Not your typical delivery service.

Dem lanterns, tho!!

For dinner, we met up with Bridget and Jance again and were the sole patrons of The Little Menu. The owner was a swell guy and waited on us hand and foot, recommending dishes to us as well as the Ancient Hoi An cocktail, which was delightful! I can safely say that it's in my Top 5 list of cocktails. I wish I could remember what was in it, but all I can say for certain was that it contained rum and passionfruit juice. We ate well, and after our meal the owner came over with a tray of chilled face cloths rolled up and declared them to be spring rolls! He had been cracking jokes all evening, which made the experience memorable.

We bid adieu to our friends, knowing that we would be seeing them early the next morning for an exciting expedition!
(Dem lanterns tho amiright?)