Tuesday, 10 August 2010

A sort of homecoming

Back in BKK is a bit like coming home now for us. Arrived Monday afternoon after a very early start in Hanoi and it felt strangely good to be hurtling along in an aircon cab decorated with Buddhas, amulets and foreign money pinned to the ceiling- back towards the Sawadee guest house. Strange that once we were installed again in the "sweet" we realised how shabby in fact this place is and how expensive for what you get.

So the day before we left Hanoi (Sunday) we finally thought let's finally get around to seeing Ho Chi Mihn's body in his mausoleum- as we seem to keep missing going there. We took a cab over and were dropped off in front of great huge concrete communist style square building with massive soviet stylee lettering HO CHI MINH on the top and the Red Viet flag with its gold star in front. Also in front was the longest queue we thought we'd ever seen until about 30 minutes walk later around the edge of the complex we came to the end of it and realised that this was indeed a longer queue than ever Clitheroe post office could boast on a Saturday morning. It liteally must have been over two miles long. Everyone in it was Vietnamese and the guy's been dead for years - so clearly paying one's respect is still a big draw.
Needless to say - no for us!

We found our way into the Botanical Gardens and marvelled at the 10s and 10s of just married couples posing for photo shoots in all their plastic finery by the lake and the statues before halting for some much needed beers in the relative cool and calm of a cafe.

On the way out of the complex we thought we'd have some lunch at a really mad busy place teeming with Viet families and particularly groups of men - including coach loads of Viet vets sporting some heavily medaled chests! We plonked our weary, sweaty selves down and order a couple of beer hoi and got settled into a typlical Si'n'Jo style conversation before long the waiter brought over a couple of extra beers and pointed out that they were from some Viet chaps on a near by table (very nice gesture)

I went off nervously to find a loo (nervous to see what manner of hole I may find by way of such a facility) On the way back down the stairs I gazed over a bbq sort of area where the menu was being prepped and saw what I thought at first glance were whole pigs. I did think the tails had a familiar wagginess to them and then the ears were sort of small and then I got to the teeth and with a shudder realsied "pigs don't have canine teeth and noses!!" A big pile of whole cooked dogs!! AAGH! We opted not to wait for lunch!

On returning to the old quarter we did a bit of shopping and then decided it was cocktail time so nipped onto a balconied place above the traffic chaos for a Gin and Si for a beer. The guy brought me a tin of tonic a glass with two ice cubes and a wine glass full to the brim of Gin!!

Finally, after an afternoon nap for me and further exploration for the indefatigable Mr Pants we only went over the road for a dinner. A really interesting place. Upmarket restuarant, patronised by big groups of affluent young Vietnamese which sold a really strange range of Viet tapas (including frog wontons and cricket spring rolls) We ordered way too much food and Simon had to ask for a (dare I say it..) "doggy" bag for his cricket rolls... yuck!

So here in Bangkok we spent yesterday wandering around the amulet market and taking boats up and down the river until we arrived at Wat Arun where Si ran, like a whippet up the steep steps. I feel a bit Watted out by now to be honest - though they tend to be pretty peaceful.

Last night we went to see our old friend of last year the amazing Mr Pas. He remebered us immediately and conversation seemed to pick up where we left off a year ago. Soon his friend and colleague (Ronnie Banderas? Remember him?) arrived and there was much rejoicing. The food was as always incredible and a sight for sore taste buds. Mr Pas no longer had Gordon Ramsay picture outside his restuarant - he says Gordon has had his time and now it is Mr Pas time! Great. We had to write in his book again and were shown our entry from last year now completed with a photo he took of us stuck in the opposite page. It was terrific to see him and Mrs Pas and Antonio Corbett again and eat such fresh and tatsy grub.

We have a cab booked for 5.00am tomorrow and we should be home in Heathrow about 9pm BST tomorrow. Really really looking forward to seeing everyone so much.
Debs and Ells - we can't wait for the Green Man festival with you guys and hope we can bring back a bit of S E Asian weather with us. We will probably come down to Wirral on Tuesday in order to catch up with everyone. Wood family we may not drive back home til Saturday so we get Friday to catch up there likewise.

Anyway- i guess this is the last blog post of SEAsia 2010 (Maybe we'll write a refection piece with some final pictures when we have had a home shower and washed our clothes and had a day or two on the green green grass of home)

Just a quick note of thanks and love to all the fab people we've met out here once again (in case they pop by)
Mr Kim Leang and his lovely staff at the Mother Home
Dustin (aka the skinny backpacker) good luck in your continued travels friend)
Josh (NGO guru and manager of Funky Monkey in Siem Reap)
Botra (Tuk tuk driver extraordinaire and gentleman)
Chenny (Chef and teacher at Le Tigre de Papier)
Neil, Gary, Tony, Roy, Streng at Magic Sponge in Kampot
The ladies and gents at Hanoi Deluxe
Ian (the aussie ex chef and gent we met in Hanoi)
Mr Pas and wife and friends at Mr Pas Foodbar.
Cheers folks and if you're ever in town.... you know ...call and stuff!

Friday, 6 August 2010

A trip to the toilet via the kitchen in Tiger Cage Bia Hoi

Untitled from Pants Jo on Vimeo.

Gin at the Hilton and Beer at the best Beer Hoi place in town

Yesterday we had the best day yet in Vietnam. We wandered down to the cathedral set in a really nice area with lots of boutiques and colonial style cafes. Wandered over to a sort of Chinesey place and enjoyed a few glasses of beer before wandering along the lake shore and into a few galleries. We then spied the Hanoi Hilton (not the prison but the real Hilton)and bethought us of a posh G&T.

The whole experience, whilst very pleasurable, was really surreal as there were about 4 french couples sitting together each sporting a 6 month old Vietnamese baby (they must have been quadruplets that the couples had bought) It was really sort of spooky and we began to bandy story ideas about - scaring ourselves more and more. Especially this became the case when we noticed two separate incidents of pregnant Viet women heading through a mirrored door off the lobby..

After that we went to the other extreme and found a famous Beer Hoi place (Tiger Cage Bia Hoi) across the road. A real locals joint where they served up snake, frog, dog and all manner of vile sounding delicacies. Simon order frogs legs and put one finger up which the servers thought hilarious (thinking he wanted just one leg instead of a portion of two) It was really good fun, with locals coming over and trying to initiate "down in one" style drinking games (though they had the advantage as they were drinking shots of rice wine, whilst Pants had a half a beer to demolish).

We finally decided to settle up but Pants wanted to visit the loo one more time and take his video camera! (I know he is a bit strange!) No no the reason was that to get to the boys room (basically a tiled cupboard with a hole in the corner) he had to walk through the kitchens and food prep areas. He returned about 5 mins later (I had begun to worry he may have ended up on the menu, he took so long) with some hilarious footage of the back room activities from peeled frogs, scorpions awaiting plating, to kitchen boys sharpening great chopppers, to cooks and servers waving at the camera and giggling. I think you may be in for a treat if he can load the video here.

We took a cab back and agreed a couple more beers before an early night. Ended at another little red chair beer hoi place and I watched in squeamish horror at a rat run across the porch roof of a bar opposite and then in even greater grossedoutness as another rat ran from a concrete telegraph pole across the wires and then down an electric flex into the cafe we were in and then straight into a plastic vegetable drawer set and then out again with a peanut in its jaws. This was repeated and repeated until the laughing staff put an end to my misery by removing the bag of nuts from the drawer.

We then began chatting with a great guy from Australia- Ian (an ex-chef, now in the export business - buying cookery equipment - knives etc and sending them back to Aus) We had a really enjoyable evening chatting with him about SE Asia and beyond. A cheeky waiter (aged about 14) kept pinching cigs off me and then asked Simon to buy him a beer and then... the cheeky little blighter, sat down like a oldster at our table and looked for all the world like he was deep into the conversation we were having. He drew a picture of a rat and teased me with it and then a picture of Simon with his big bushy beard!

Got back to the hotel about 8.30 and I hit the hay whilst pants went out for more fun and hilarity, returning about midnight with a jolly swagger and conical hat!! Least said about this the better... suffice to say he is quite humble this morning - GOOD!

Not sure how to spend today - I am actually a bit exhausted and really just want to get another book and settle in to read until Bangkok now- though there's always a food problem. Really not enjoying my food at all (though am still fat) Simon is getting braver and braver and I expect to witness some snake/dog consumption pretty soon unless I can lure him away with the promise of pizza.
Love to all

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Birthday treats

Thanks for all the birthday wishes folks. Last year my birthday supper was ion a red chair cafe by the river in BKK eating raw shrimp and then spending the night listening to Pants running to the loo. This year in Hanoi and after almost three weeks of dreadful grub we had a real treat and the very laid back and beautiful restuarant Green Mango. Delicious salmon and mashed spuds (yummy!) and Simon had pizza but with a smoked salmon wontons to start. Great cold cold Aussie Chardonnay too... oh heavenly.
We didn't get to see dead Uncle Ho as he only receives visitors until 11am and Fridays are his day off! We hope for an audience tomorrow. Instead we explored the old quarter all day and wandered around the lake, which is an oasis of calm in this mad moped overrun city.
Today we plan to find St Joseph's cathedral and have lunch somewhere around there before heading to the French Quarter and a visit this afternoon to the Vietnam history museum. Hanoi is 1000 years old this year and there are celebratory flower arrangements all around the parks.
Simon usually takes an afternoon off so he can stomp around exploring all the reall sleezy areas which I would freak out in. Yesterday he came back all sweaty and excited with photos of menus which offered boiled dog and fried bull penis. Yum.
We fly early on Monday to BKK for a few days. (I may have mentioned this before- I'm not counting down the days or anything...)
BTW.. video of me vandalising walls I believe may have been misrepresented. The DMZ Bar in Hue is covered in vandalism and so we just had to get in on the act.
Love to all

Hanoi Bia Hoi (fresh beer) corner

Untitled from Pants Jo on Vimeo.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The view from a sleeper bus

Untitled from Pants Jo on Vimeo.

Pants gets run down by a vicious market trader

Untitled from Pants Jo on Vimeo.

Night bus to Hanoi!

Basically trolled around Hue on Monday waiting for 5.30pm when we were due to be collected for the sleeper bus to Hanoi.

Obviously it didn't go swimmingly - obviously! A girl collected us and took us to a car with three men shoved in the back seat and two others trying to stick their backpacks, guitars, digerydoos and lord knows what other traveller detritus in the already cramped space; then themselves and the girl and the driver having some sort of row about how Simon and I would be able to fit in. She tried squeezing our bags on the front seat and then pushed Simon on to the back seat and then realised that there was no way I would fit in as well so promptly said "Wait here" and made to leave.. Simon hopped out and said I'll wait with my wife and we'll keep our rucksacks too if you don't mind. She did! Much shouting ensued and we were left at the road side with bemused cyclo drivers glaring anxiously at my red face shouting expletives after the departing vehicle.

By the time they came back for us we were all smiling and apologising.

Okay so the sleeper bus!!!!!!
Once again I have to give fair warning to my mum and brother- cancel your flights to Vietnam guys! Basically you take your shoes off and put them in a plastic bag before walking up a 2 foot wide space of an aisle with "pods" at ground level and shoulder level (three columns of them - at each window and in the middle of the bus) We were in many ways lucky because we had a top and bottom place at window side not quite at the back of the bus - where you get three "beds" next to each other. The width is about 2foot and the length includes a bit where you slide your feet into the plastic casing of the bed in front - horrible for claustrophobes and for some of the big western guys over 6 foot. At first we managed to stay fairly calm. I was in the ground floor bit and could slide one leg out into the aisle. Then at about 8.30pm when everyone was fairly calm and settled into reading their books, they decided to switch all the lights out. (great! you could hear the collective thought patterns of all aboard... we have another 12 hours of this! And at that stage we'd already been travelling almost 3 hours)

By midnight I had managed a 5 min snooze but woke up in a panic as I realised that two local women had jumped on board and were now sleeping next to me in the aisle space (bear in mind the beds are actually on the floor) so that I had a head right by me. My saving grace had been the fact that I could clamber out of my pod and stand for a few mins if need be but now that option was a no go and the panic started to rise.

The only option was to take a valium- which I duly did and handed them up to Pants who also indulged. We managed about 4 hours sleep each.

Eventually at 8.30am we pulled into Hanoi. We took a cab to our guest house which is superb. Si went for an explore in the afternoon and I caught up on some zeds. Last night we wandered out to find some supper and found ourselves here in the old quarter which is a vast labyrinth of basically shops and markets. We found a little aircon place which was okay.

Then headed to a beer hoi place (locally brewed draught beer served in red chair cafes on street corners) I knew Pants was keen to sample this local experience and so gingerly sat on the tiny red stool in amongst the litter and dirt of pavement and gutter. We were served two beers in the filthiest glasses you ever saw. I am sorry but I have become an uber wuss by this stage. Having seen some enormouse (I am literally talking cat okay kitten sized) rats in broad daylight and some mouse sized cockroaches, I find sitting almost on a filthy pavement in the dark just not relaxing. Unfortunately there is no sort of tourist centre or cafe quarter so it looks as thought this is our lot.

Today (my birthday folks!!!) Simon asked me what I would like to do.... obviously when in Hanoi on your birthday there's only one answer...go and see Ho Chi Minh's cadaver in his mausoleum!! So that's what we're planning this morning. This morning Simon announced that in honour of my birthday we would go to the Green Papaya Restuarant tonight - of which there is no such place! The Green Mango on the other hand is beyond his budget so it maybe on me!! :-)
We have another 3 full days after today and then off to BKK for the final countdown to coming home. (To be honest, I am missing everyone and looking forward to clean clothes)

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Vietscam!!!!!!! AAAAAGH!!!

Hewow from Hue! We took a bus up to Hue on Friday. Stunning scenery over a 3 hour trip over mountain passes and in flat sea level valleys by lagoons. Really pretty and awesome and made us just wish it was possible to hire a car and go it alone, stopping in some of these incredible places.

Arrived in the middle of Hue and immediately had a tout on our tail. We managed to ignore him and promptly marched off in the wrong direction through this really busy city. Eventually some creative map reading paid off and we sweatily staggered into the Amigo Hotel only to be told they were full. Went next door and they were all "yes yes velly nice room come and look" Relieved Simon went off to view a not velly nice room and so told her one night would do. Immediately she started "where you go tomorrow" - he lied- away on the train. "What time? Let me see ticket. You not know what time train goes? Stay here two night!" etc etc. Oh JUST BOG OFF!!

Found a crappy room in next hotel along, with one light bulb, two beds, one pillow and a loo with no loo roll- yep fine! After a speedy shower we headed out for grub and a well earned G&T (made with god knows what excuse for T and as for the G!) Went to a back packery type bar and were utterly sickened to see two western guys (poss german) ugly vile looking dudes order up a couple of hookers - the bar staff hurriedly providing plastic chairs for the lovely ladies and the two creeps ordering themselves some nice drinks while the ladies ran across the street and had to buy themselves a drink from a street vendor. Couldn't believe the staff at the bar were so okay with it.

Next day we headed out to walk across the river and explore the citadel. It was nice and quiet and very Vietnamese - hardly a tout in sight. Si enjoyed his best grub yet at a street food place. Massively hot though and after about 3 hours or so- no sign of the citadel. Took a cyclo back (kind of a bicycle with a big pram in front) Obviously there was a big discussion about price and some walking away and coming back and walking away before a deal was struck.
Can you feel the flatness in this piece? Are you getting the sense of ... bah!
Pants enjoyed a walk around in the afternoon to a riverside cafe. We then went out and ate western food- the pizza was okay but Si's bratwurst & chips was unsurprisingly awful. Bed by 9pm.

Today great plans for biking out of the city into the villages and finding the pagodas and tombs. First though, we needed to book our train tickets for tomorrow's 12 hour jouney to Ninh Binh. We went to the back packer place and met a po-face that huffed and puffed and said they'd have to send someone to the station to see about booking it as they couldn't do it on phone. She tried to suggest a sleeper train and lied about the times the day train got in to Ninh Binh (saying about 1am instead of what we know is the arrival time of 7pm) We decided to ride the bikes the 2km to the station as it was on the way to the villages and book ourselves.

Simon looked after the bikes whilst I nipped in and stood second in the queue. About20 mins later I was getting right royally hacked off with people just pushing me and stepping in front. At this stage a chap came up saying he worked at the station - where was I going? I explained, making sure I knew my stuff in terms of train number and times. He jumped in and spoke to the ticket girl before turning back to inform me that the train was completely full. All the other trains arrive at stupid o'clock in the morning (2am etc), no use for walking about a strange city looking for accom at that time of day. I asked about the following day and he said "full".

Next thing he is very plausibly suggesting sleeper bus and being quick to book it if we want places. Okay, we realise another revision to the plan is required and eschew Ninh Binh in favour of getting out of Hue and straight on to Hanoi. So he leads us not to a bus booking office as impled but directly into what is obviously his own cafe / scamming business!! Forget it man!

We cycled all the way back to town and went to a travel agent and he says "train station closed on Sunday cannot book train!!" So we are now staying another night here in Hell erm Hue and then travelling on a sleeper bus on Tuesday night straight to Hanoi!

Alright - so it is shit and everyone seems to lie to you but heh, we're here let's make the most of it. Back on the bikes and off we go. Great at first, as we were soon out of busy town (where people pull out in front of you, ride their mopeds the wrong way down the street and cut you up turning right at a cross roads- that's all charming though, isn't it? Travelling is such fun) Down the country lanes and it is starting to look better. Stopped at a red chair cafe and a big bunch of tattoed local lads drinking crates of beer are immediately raising their glasses to us, giving us beer & mangos, and stealing my Marlboro Lights with great joy and much mutual back slapping. This is the life - this is what it's about- these are the real people.

Following this rare success, we travelled on and stopped about an hour or so later at another such establishment for Si to have another great local food experience. The lady piled him up with random looking meats and rice and a beer. (I was feeling a little heat exhausted and not hungry - so took a water and checked out the map under a near by tree- okay there were dogs in the cafe and they didn't like me, I could tell!)
Next thing I hear Simon shouting "What! No no no!" The bloody woman is trying to charge him 100,000 Dong. (It should have been about 30, 000!) The old moo wasn't backing down and nor was Pants. I rather stupidly just threw the money at her and tried to call the boy off before some serious kick boxing ensued. (Quan 371 - the name of the rip-off joint - Pants)
And that my friends is where you leave us.... thoroughly, utterly pissed off with Vietnam.

It isn't the odd 50 cents or the odd dollar or 10 or 20 dollars... it is the relentless scamming, lying, thieving. It seems that you can not exercise your own will to do anything because someone is ALWAYS available to lie to you and lead you off down a different path and probably charge you for it. They offer things... western breakfast for example where you get a cheese omelete... was you get is a basically a messed up fried egg with half a triangle of laughing cow cheese spewing out of it. Everyone wants a piece of you and your money. It's not even poor like in Cambodia. It is just they see a white face and try it on! We would honestly fly back to BKK right now but we'd need to get to Hanoi anyway.

Not sure how others have actually enjoyed this country. Unless you are happy to just get pushed about onto allsorts of tours which cost a lot and are of differing quality and invariably lead to you needing to buy more things. Or unless you want to sit on the back of a motor bike and calm as a hindu cow just get lead wherever they want to take you for the least about of trouble and most amount of dollarage.
I'm sure that travelling types that read this may be happy to blame us for being what.. narrow minded, too western, not chilled.. Fine - our experience of Vietscam has been overall pretty goddamn awful and if friends and family were asking which SE Asian country to visit VN wouldn't be getting any recs from this quarter.

Hope you're all well, enjoying nice food and not paying too much for it just coz you is white!!