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The limestone pillars of Halong Bay

20 Mar

And now onto Halong Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin – Vietnam’s top attraction. The spectacular view of more than 1600 limestone pillars rising out the sea is best viewed on a cushioned lounge chair on top of a wooden junk. As most travellers, we opted for a two-day cruise organised from Hanoi. Both Vega Travels and Oceantours are reportedly reputable agencies.

If they could choose, most travel agencies would probably have used the shiny, dazzling UNESCO World Heritage designation to promote this magnificent karst landscape. But, Vietnam’s communist party wanted it differently. When a Swiss travel magazine launched an online poll of the ‘new seven wonders of the world’, the party mobilised the country’s population to vote. So instead of the universal label of UNESCO, Halong Bay is proudly presented today by tourist guides as one of the seven wonders according to the Swiss.

Plying waters dotted with hundreds of limestone pillars would obviously have made for a nice little video. I do have that video. But, unfortunately someone may have accidentally lost it into Halong Bay. As a touch of irony, the video camera is waterproof. So, here are therefore some photos instead:

 

 

Hoian in a nutshell: interesting

20 Mar

After a 20 hour journey from Hoi An in part sleeper bus, part tumble dryer, we arrived in Hanoi. Vietnam’s capital had me humming Katie Melua’s “There are nine million bicycles in Bejing” from the moment I heard the stats. 6.7 million people. 6.2 million motorbikes. Each and every one of those whizzing through the streets while honking inanely, doing their best to keep up Hanoi’s dubious record of being the most polluted city in southeast Asia.

Hanoi is, if I may be frank, a city I doubt I would ever really like. But it pulls you in. I would probably be able to continually find it interesting. It’s not modern like Ho Chi Minh, pretty like Hoi An or charming like Can Tho. But, it had me staring from the moment I arrived.

Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum

The main attraction in Hanoi is also its most macabre attraction: Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. Ho Chi Minh was the president of North Vietnam during the build up and part of the Vietnam War. Although he cultivated the image of the humble ‘Uncle Ho’, his wishes of a cremation was politely disrespected by the communist party who would rather continue cultivating him as a national icon. In the tradition of communist leaders, he was embalmed and put on public display. Most of the year, Ho Chi Minh is found in a horrendous granite mausoleum copied from Lenin’s tomb in Moscow. Though once a year he goes to Russia for maintenance.

Ho Chi Minh’s tomb is open most weekdays, and we joined the slow queue of several hundred people one day. It was first when we entered the building that it dawned on me what we were about to see. A 79 year old man, 44 years after he passed away.Frozen in time, Ho Chi Minh lays pale and frail in a glass sarcophagus. Despite the best efforts of his Russian embalmers and the warm spotlights on him to make him appear more lifelike, he resembles a vax statue. During the few minutes in his tomb, watchful guards occasionally pushed us onwards. Because you will want to linger. It is a mummified body after all.

Our stay at Hanoi Hilton

And yet – Hanoi was a welcome breather. We stayed with our Norwegian friends Tone and Jørn Petter, whose home was so packed with joy and treats we almost booked a flight back to Europe to get a home again of our own. We slept in duvets. The shower had hot water AND good water pressure. The coffee was an actual espresso and breakfast was glorious bread, cheese and jam. It was peaceful. And for a few lovely days, someone dealt with all of the normal journey issues for us. Safe taxi companies? (Taxi Group, ABC Taxi, and Mahlinh) Best travel agencies for trips to Halong Bay? (Vega Travel) Opening hours of the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum? (From 8 to 11 – though with the queues, you need to be there before 9) etc etc.

 

Joys of travelling: the day someone peed on my sandals

14 Mar

I had originally self-censored this post. Travelling has its ups and downs. The below blog post was a matter of me writing out the irritation. Though intended as a bit of self-theraphy and not for publishing, I nevertheless sent it to my family. Not surprising, they found it utterly hilarious. And upon reflection, there should be some balance to the positive travel stories I normally share. So, here it is. The day someone peed on me.

 

Travel blogs tend to be about destinations. Nonetheless, a lot of the time is spent travelling in the true sense of the word. The boring bus ride, the uncomfortable train journey and the waiting. Or in my case, the women peeing on my feet – completely unnecessary and unprovoked.

Yes, that´s right. Two days later, and I am still so mortified that this is the story I would tell you if we met tonight. So yes. I´ll pour us some imaginary drinks and tell you the truth about our travels two days ago.

Okay. So we were travelling from Can Tho to Phu Quoc. The first leg of that journey is a bus ride. Buses in Vietnam have so far come with very comfortable seats and air conditioning. Unfortunately, they also come with a maniac for a driver. And of course, an extremely violent movie in Vietnamese blasting at top volume. Chainsaws are normally involved.

After nearly having killed 57 motorbike drivers and barely missed 12 head-on collisions, we stumble out of the bus at Raich Gea. Actually, we can barely get off the bus. We have been spotted as the only foreigners by the waiting taxi drivers. Instead of finally putting our feet down on the ground and sighing of relief, we find ourselves surrounded by shouting people. “Where you wanna go?”, “Taxi?!!”. Realising that we are not responding, all six start tugging at our clothes to get our attention. “TAXIII???”

Scrap that.

So, we do what anyone would do. We walk out of the station. Obviously we need a taxi. But when you´re fed up, your power seems to be to take your tourist dollars and walk away.

I´ll fast forward until we have realised that even our small backpacks are annoying backpacks in 35 degrees heat. We finally find a taxi that we insist takes us to a non-existing place, before we eventually realise we have the wrong information and ask him to drive us to the ferry stop instead.

Tired and hungry, we walk along the harbour until we spot a nice breezy restaurant. When we ask for the menu, we are given a tourist version…with no prices. We ask for one with prices. Oh, afterwards, we are told. But then how do we know what things cost, we ask. Afterwards, the guy repeats. But how do we know what to order if we do not know what it costs?, we repeat – still not eager to give the guy a blank cheque. He shrugs. We start pointing at items on the menu, asking for sample prices. A bottle of water? Fried rice? Again, he shakes his head. Only after we have eaten.

Fed up, we set off with our backpacks for the waiting area of the boat station. On my way to the toilet I realise I need money. At the time, I was rather happy with having to pay for the toilet, thinking it would probably be cleaner then. I return a few minutes later and push open the door, but stop just inside because of the people in front of me. A queue, I assume.

A women smiles at me and says something in Vietnamese. I, of course, do not understand. Until I look down. Two grown women are squatting on the white tiles, facing me and a few metres away from the three cubicles. They are both peeing. Two other women are standing behind them. I keep staring. I slowly realise that I – and everyone else – are standing in an increasingly large poodle of pee. I´m wearing flip-flops.

I catch the eyes of the peeing woman closest to me. She looks at me and grins. Now, I´ll admit that what happens next sounds like a bad American teenage movie…where I star as the snooty teenager. Because I simply turn on my heels and walk out. Hands to my temples, half shielding my eyes. “Oh my god”, I horror. “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god”. I keep repeating this as I walk away, to the amusement and chuckling laughter of the Vietnamese women.

So, sometimes the slogans are simply bad slogans. The airline companies have it all wrong. Travelling is not always the destination. Travelling is sometimes the annoying part.

 

Hoi An in a few photos

11 Mar

I can’t think of any reason you wouldn’t love Hoi An. Unless, you were not a fan of hanging out with other tourists. Then you’d probably be better off somewhere else.

Because Hoi An is firmly on most people’s itinerary. And there is a reason for that. It delivers on all the clichés. This is what Vietnam looks like from the view of a tourist.

Bike paths lead into green rice paddies with water buffalos and conical hats. In the Old Town, of course UNESCO inscribed, narrow streets take you past low, tiled-roofed wooden shop-houses, temples and French colonial style buildings on your way to the old canals. And to top it off, several of the streets are pedestrianized, others allow only motorbikes to pass.

 

Vietnamese cooking: just a bit more oil, please

10 Mar

Spoiled by our month in Thailand, Vietnamese food has so far been somewhat disappointing. Truthfully, it has been a bit bland and often greasy. But, while we may have slurped some noodles, we also appreciate that we may not have appreciated Vietnamese cuisine to its fullest.

So. We enrolled in two cooking classes in Hoi An. One where a rat lurked underneath the makeshift kitchen and where monosodium glutamate was liberally added to each dish, and one as taken out of an American cooking programme on TV.

Cooking class at Ms. Hoa

Walk across the small bridge from the old town of Hoi An, hold left and you find rows of cheap eateries.

Fried wontons

While his words said “add a tablespoon of oil to the pan”, the spoon Ms. Hoa’s son used was a ladle. So, to start you off with this dish, add the equivalent of four spoons of oil to a pan. Meanwhile, chop half an onion, a chunk pineapple and one tomato. The next step makes this dish tricky to recreate at home (not necessarily a bad thing). Cook ready-made wonton wrappers in the oil until slightly yellow. Add yet another “one tablespoon of oil” (four) into a new pan and cook three shrimps before you add the vegetables. Season with one topped tablespoon of ketchup, a large spoonful of monosodium glutamate, sugar and pepper. Place the shrimp and vegetable mixture on top of the wontons.

Cao Lau noodles with shrimp

Cao Lau noodles, similar to Japanese soba noodles, are a speciality of Hoi An. A pleasant meal, but you might want to leave out the MSG.

The dish is simple to make though: Grate and fry one carrot. Add and cook ten raw shrimps. Then add a handful of bean sprouts, some chopped spring onions, seasoning (monosodium glutamate, sugar and pepper) and at the end some pre-cooked noodles.

Banh Xeo

Ooohh….. this is simply an evil pancake. Its euphemism is a “crispy crepe”. It is tasty, but the crispiness comes from using about half a bottle of oil for each pancake.

Again, start by adding a ladle of oil to a pan. Add the pancake mix (normal batter, though add some saffron). You should at this point have so much oil in the pan that when the batter has sunk to the bottom, there is a nice one and a half centimeter layer of oil on top. Add even more oil at this point, and swirl the pancake around. Wait until all the oil has been absorbed. Fold the pancake over and, yes, add some more oil.

When cooked, place bean sprouts in the middle of the pancake. Leave this for a bit under a lid until the bean sprouts have softened.

To eat, place the pancake on a piece of rice paper, add some salad and herbs and then roll it as if it was a spring roll. Dunk in sweet chilli sauce and eat while you try to forget the amount of oil you are consuming.

 

Chicken cooked with lemongrass and chili

Now, this was very nice. My facial expression below has nothing to do with the plate in front of me. It was simply disbelief that I had to eat even more food after I had politely forced down the pancakes.

Fry chopped up garlic (three cloves) in a “tablespoon of oil”. Add thinly chopped up fresh lemongrass, half a chopped up onion, one spoon monosodium glutamate, a spoon sugar, and a spoon Maggi sauce. Add chicken cut into small pieces and stir until cooked. Lastly, add some chopped spring onions.

Cooking class at the Morning Glory restaurant

Thankfully, the food at the Morning Glory was absolutely glorious. Plus, the amount of oil was cut down to about two thirds of yesterday’s. Still tasty, and finally some Vietnamese food that would not add considerably to our already additional backpacking kilo.

So. The below is what I will be cooking when I´m back! Or, at least the mango salad.

Cabbage leaf parcels with shrimp mousse in broth

12 spring onions
1 litre vegetable stock, hot
8 carrot flowers, sliced finely
Sesame oil
1/2 cup spring onion curls
1/2 cup coriander leaves
1/2 tsp coarse black pepper

 

Shrimp mousse
200 gr prawns, peeled
1/4 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp coarse black pepper
1/2 tsp fish sauce
1/2 tsp sugar
1/3 cup white spring onion and shallot, chopped finely
1 egg white

 

    • To make shrimp mousse, blend all ingredients.
    • Cut the cabbage leaves in half – discard the thick vein part. Bring a small pot of salted water to boil. Cook the leaves for 2 minutes and then set aside to cool. Cut the bottom white part of the 12 spring onions, then blanch the green part for 30 seconds in the same hot water. Set this aside as well.
    • Bring the vegetable stock to boil.
    • Make the shrimp dumplings by using two tablespoons. Make 12 – any left over mixture can be made into small balls that you add to the broth for flavour.
    • Poach the dumplings in the vegetable stock for about one minute, then remove.
    • Cut the cabbage leaves into small squares (10cm x 15 cm). Put the leftover cabbage in the broth.
    • Place the dumpling horizontally 2 cm from the edge of the cabbage square, fold over the sides (if the dumpling is too big, simply cut off a small piece on each side). Roll (as if you were making a spring roll), and then tie it together with the spring onion.
    • Place the cabbage parcels in the broth with the carrot slices.
    • (To make the soup even nicer, fry some garlic in a pan, add chopped up spring onion, and then some raw shrimps. Add this as well to the soup.)
    • Serve in bowls topped with spring onion curls, coriander leaves, a pinch of black pepper and a few drops of sesame oil.

 

Evil pancakes…again

What can I say? This time around, we carefully put the oil in our pans, trying to get away with using less than told. But within seconds, the instructor was there. And then that was it. Three good squirts with the bottle, and our pancakes were once again swimming in oil.

 

Mango salad

Oh glory. THIS! Now, this is the recipe I will make time and time again when I come home.

200 gr green mango, sliced finely. (The one I was given was however perfectly ripe and that is what I´ll use in the future)
1 cup onion, sliced finely
1 1/2 cups mint
1 tsp sesame seeds, roasted
1 tblsp vegetable oil
2 tblsp fried shallots (crispy onions from a bag should work just as well)
1 tblsp lime juice
1 tblsp white sugar
1 tsp fish sauce
1 tsp mild red chilli and garlic, pounded

In a bowl, put mango, onion, one cup of mint, one teaspoon of sesame seeds, lime juice, sugar, fish sauce, chilli and garlic mix, as well as vegetable oil. Mix well. Serve on four small plates (as a starter) and garnish with remaining mint, sesame seeds and fried shallots.

Beach bums on Phu Quoc

9 Mar

We missed the beach. Phu Quoc, a small island in the Gulf of Thailand, is rumoured to have Vietnam´s nicest beaches. Obviously, we had to go.

From Can Tho, the island is three hours in a bus and two hours on a ferry away. To hold on to the rumour of paradise, keep your eyes closed as you get off the ferry. Keep them closed until you have passed the collection of trash lining the first few beaches. Better yet, continue to keep them closed until the taxi has taken you to Long Beach.

Because Long Beach is one of the lovely places in this world where you go to become stupider. The kind of place where you forget what day it is. You simply sit on this long stretch of golden sand and just let nice things happen to you. Required brain activity is limited to spotting a free sun bed to lie down on, choosing between mango or pineapple when your favourite fruit vendor passes by, and trying to make up your mind about whether the frozen mango cocktail is better than the mojito.