Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Hong Kong

 We spent four nights in Hong Kong at the Harbour Grand Hotel, this was our fourth trip but we had not been since 1994.  We found a new airport, many new buildings and the disappearance of red, British, post boxes (presumably due to the hand over to China).  Not much else had changed.

Star Ferry

We used the MTR (mass transit railway) to Central and then the Star Ferry across Hong Kong Bay to Hong Kong Mainland - Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry. The main shopping area is known as Kowloon and most places of interest are on or near Jordan and Nathan Roads.

We took a nostalgia trip to Chunking Mansions on Nathan Road.  According to  Wikepedia over 4,000 people live in this block and it is 'nearly the cheapest accommodation in Hong Kong'.  This tower block is somewhere you would either steer clear of or go out of your way to find depending on whether you like small, crowded spaces that smell strongly of curry and spice!  We expected to find it had been demolished but were ecstatic to see it looming in all its shabbiness as we love exploring in there and have enjoyed curries there on previous trips.

It is a hive of activity. The upper floors have a variety of rooms/rentals, middle floors are restaurants and lower/ground are a warren of small Chinese/Asian shops and booths selling fast food, electronics, household, haircuts, toiletries, shoes, clothes, anything and everything in a very compact environment.  The traders, predominantly Asian, call out and do their best to engage, asking what you are looking for and assuring you they or someone they know can provide it.

From here we had forgotten the way to the Bird Market and had heard from some locals that it may have closed down due to bird flu scares so walked up to the police station for reassurance and directions.  Just one stop on the MTR to Mongkok and we were there.  It had been modernised slightly with new seating and hanging space for cages.

Some of the older local men take great pride in their birds and bring them along to compete in their birdsong, hanging the little wicker cages up in a row and sitting down to admire and socialise.  This is also where song birds are sold and tiny newly hatched birds can be seen hand feeding from vendors.  The cages and pretty china feeding bowls are also sold here and the live food for the birds.

Next is the flower market, very close to the bird market, where wholesale and retail shops take over a whole road, crammed with every kind of floral bouquet, display and houseplant you can imagine.  Orchids are very cheap here and I saw varieties that were new to me.  In particular, tiny little yellow ones.  Elderly street vendors sell ribbons and gift cards.

yellow orchids

The Ladies Market is just off here and is full of cheap clothes and trinkets, visited by a large mix of locals and tourists.  About a mile walk from here is the Night Market which is similar but much bigger and also has fast/live food (frogs, fish, etc) and small street cafes with communal tables outside where we drank beer and observed what the locals were eating (noodles,meat and vegetables in a clear broth).  

Back in Kowloon we found the famous Sam's tailors (suits made for royalty and stars) and then sought out what is locally known as 'Bhuddist Food',  vegetarian restuarants that offer meat substitute dishes made from taro which is similar in texture to soya or quorn protein and shaped/flavoured to look like just about anything.  Meat eaters could be confused as the menu will state the dish the taro resembles and it is very authentic : i.e. chicken, fish, liver, beef, pork.

We had sweet and sour 'chicken'  Here the dessert was a goodwill freebie but we had no idea what it was and nobody could tell us!  Meals in this type of place are around £7 a person for a main course with rice, shared side dish of vegetables and a pot of Chinese tea.

unknown dessert

Back at our hotel we had a luxurious room with a bath and shower, view of the Harbour (extensive building works going on) and a sunny spot by the pool.  We only ate breakfast here but it was substantial: vegetable and lentil curries, a variety of croissants and pastries, cereals and full English breakfast to choose from.  Just round the corner there was a kiosk where we ate falafel, salad wraps (standing up booth) for a few dollars and a supermarket where we stocked up on bottled water, crisps and made cheese sandwiches up in the room for late night snacks!

Street food:  I saw a queue of locals at a stall for what I thought was tiny donuts being deep fried, placed on skewers and smothered in chocolate sauce (I asked for lots of sauce!), having eaten half of mine I asked some youngsters what it was and they couldn't stop laughing when I told them I'm veggie as it was fish balls in gravy! not pleasant to my taste but all part of the experience! I finished it off with good grace :)

fish balls in gravy

Hong Kong has something for everyone.  There is a tram ride to the highest point (The Peak) for fabulous views over Hong Kong) and Stanley (small beach area) but we ran out of time and luckily had seen before.

That's it ... until the next trip!.....


Thursday, 7 June 2018

Vietnam: Saigon

Officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City, locals still prefer to call the city Saigon - we queried this, they think the old name is prettier, easier and it is in no way disrespecting HCM himself, of whom every single person we met had a story to tell about his kindness and generosity, likening him to Ghandi.

 there's plenty of familiar outlets here - McDonalds - offering Vietnamese coffee, which was
very nice and almost as good as the one we had in the Sapa village and a Domino pizza.

 Indian restuarants, we went to this one twice it was so good - bucket of curry anyone?

more markets and shops selling fresh product (jackfruit)

Saigon has a population of eight and a half million, of which over 7 million own a moped.  The city is stacked with mopeds, traffic is slow but furious with mopeds cramming the streets and parked so densely on pavements that pedestrians can't get by without jaywalking.  It is not uncommon to find mopeds coming at you on the wrong side of the road and yet it all works somehow.

 To be honest we didn't want excursions here, the city is heaving with traffic and the popular destinations are the French built post office, Government buildings and well manicured public gardens.  We preferred, as we have throughout this trip, to go to the local markets and living quarters and explore, eat outside, wander around and take it all in. 

Post Office, French built during occupation

Everyone in Saigon is immensely proud of their country and Government.  I asked why we didn't see any uniformed police or soldiers on the streets and was told there aren't any, only plain clothes/secret police and they aren't needed much.  Anyone doing anything very bad is 'removed' punishment is very severe and crime is therefore low. 

view from hotel, Saigon

Crossing roads is scary, lorries and buses rule,so you give way to them as not all vehicles stop at lights.    The pedestrian rule is give way to big vehicles, then step out bravely; locals flap a hand by their side in bird like fashion to indicate they are on the move, the mopeds will weave around you, dont step back and dont run, a steady pace is the trick.  If you stop, the flapping hand stops too.

A city of many contrasts with streets of high rise buildings with pavements that fill up in the early morning to sell street food, fruit and veg, nuts, everything on little stalls, mopeds or hawkers on foot, more intense at night competing with a variety of traditional and modern restaurants selling local food but also pizza pasta and just about everything in between.

There is a vast  market selling food and spices, it has a big undercover section in the middle full of literally hundreds of small stalls selling cooked meals with a few chairs, tables or benches crammed with people, mostly locals but also backpackers.  Everything is super fresh, cooked on the spot on small burners.

We spent our evenings in open front street cafes watching the world go by and ate good Vegetarian food at Ganesh, an Indian restaurant,with no expense spared as it was our last two nights there and so good we had to come back . average £14 for two with beer, full of Indian diners, hardly a westerner in sight.  Also the inevitable Mcdonalds that was great for air con cool down after the sweltering heat outside, average 30 degrees with 80 per cent humidity.

We visited the Reunification Palace and saw the vast state rooms and learned how the Viet Cong crashed the palace gates and took back power from the Southern Army, raising the now familiar red flag with yellow star and signaling the end of the Vietnam war.

Chinatown within Saigon houses the Chinese community, their businesses (tailors, laundries) in narrow streets crammed with food stalls traffic and people and holds some beautiful Buddhists  temples.  People were friendly without exception.

Cu Chi Tunnels

The drive here was interesting, we had our own van and found the landscape turn quickly into jungle.  There are a large number of vast orchid farms on the route, polytunnelled and gated - I asked if we could take a look but was declined, the growers don't want visitors.

 American artillary, some of which was recycled by the Vietnamese to make their own weapons, including hand made rifles.  Vietnamese soldiers had to carry a toothpick between their teeth, to remind them not to make any noise.  If they forgot and the toothpick fell out and got lost, they would be severely punished.

map of the tunnels

At Cu Chi we had a guide supplied by Kuoni Travel who apologised for the 'propaganda' video (which I enjoyed).  There is a point where you can enter some tunnels, which have been enlarged to just about fit a small westerner (me).  I had trouble getting out of one and had to be dragged out but could see when in there the tunnels go down deep and narrow eventually they join chambers where people lived, slept and cooked.  There was an air vent system to take fresh air in but also to take cooking smells and smoke out, some distance from the tunnels - cooking was only done in the early morning as the smoke was not seen in the morning mists.

This American tank will never leave as the jungle has grown around it.  When the Vietnam War was on, this area was not as dense with jungle, in fact it was quite open in places which makes it all the more remarkable that these clever people managed to stay hidden below ground.

These are an ingenious invention, shoes that leave prints going the opposite way, they fooled many an American soldier.

After Saigon, we took a flight to Hong Kong.... next post.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Vietnam: Hoi An

Arrived at the beautiful Palm Beach Resort a 20 minute drive from Hoi An.  The rooms are huge, with heavy wooden furniture, tiled floors and enormous bed, air conditioned.  Bathroom has giant stone bath with rainforest shower.  We had breakfast only here but it was a feast with a very extensive buffet offering European and Asian food.  They made me vegetarian asian crispy pancake rolls daily although there was always fish and meat versions available to help yourself to.  Fruit in abundance, rice, lentil curry, soups, steamed vegetables, cereals, breads and a variety of juices.  We didn't need lunch and ate dinners outside in local places

It's the only hotel I have ever stayed in where there is no shortage of sunbeds or towels and you can swim in the pool at night!

Hoi An is a Unesco World Heritage Site where part of the town is closed to traffic other than bicycles and rickshaws.  It is picturesque, colourful and very French/colonial.

A ticket can be purchased in town to access up to five of the many tourist attractions - the most popular being the Japanese bridge.  A £4 ticket gets you into 5 places of interest of your choice.  You could get by without the ticket but if you want to explore inside the ancient houses and temples (including a small one inside the famous Japanese bridge) it's great value.  The old houses are very dark inside but are designed around an open courtyard area where originally they would have cooked and relaxed.  We visited at night so I would recommend daytime visits if you want to see well and get good pictures.

If you order a meal in the smaller street bars, they will often bring it from somewhere else, it could be cooked in their home round the corner, in another bar, who knows! but it will arrive by moped in a pot balanced precariously and the driver will run in with the steaming pot straight to the kitchen, seconds later it's on your plate!  Pizza, curry, noodles, all delivered by moped to the kitchen.

The market sells fresh vegetables, fish and spices during the day then turns into a tourist/clothes and street food market at night.  There are plenty of places to eat or sit and drink beer all around the outskirts of the market which are nicer than the very cramped food areas inside.  This is where I tried some of the delicious food - the one below is an egg pancake with mashed banana inside and chocolate sauce over the top, chopped into squares and eaten with a stick.  It was hot, delicious and very filling.

pancake with mashed banana filling, hot, filling, delicious street food

There were 'ice cream' curls:  made from crushed/chopped  strawberries, prepared on dry ice and then spread with some condensed sweetened milk, the pulp freezes instantly and is scraped off into 'curls' presented in a little paper cup.

chips and beer, Hoi An market

I bought some lightweight cotton wrap beach trousers and an open back top for only a few pounds after some bartering.  There are many shops selling coffee and it's a good place to buy the traditional Vietnamese coffee filter pots.

Beautiful silk lanterns are on sale here.  When shopping you can expect to bargain 30% or more  off  (about £3 each) so having had the fun of the barter, you could pay a little more if you want to walk away feeling you were fair.  People aren't poor by their own standards, but their lifestyle is very different to ours (one elderly lady was so surprised at my paying a bit more after a hard haggle that she hugged and kissed me, a lot!).

silk lanterns on sale on street corners and in the market

You can get one of the many brightly painted boats below or a little rowing boat above to take you along the canal.  Night times are best as the rowing boats are lit by silk lanterns, the scene is absolutely beautiful,  as are the streets (it is a requirement in the area for the shops to maintain lanterns at night, they run on cables across the streets, failure to comply can result in a government fine).

Around the bridge and river at night there are many young and elderly people selling little 'helicopters' for a few UK pence that you can release into the sky like bright blue and white fireflies - they 'die' quickly but last just long enough to make a wish!

Throughout Vietnam there are Bhuddist, Hindu and Animist temples.  In Hoi An the temples we saw were Chinese.

We were told that the wooden doorways deliberately have a 'step' so you lean forward as you enter, forcing a bow of respect towards the inner alter.

toad is a popular street food here (we didnt try this one!)

 The school run, not a car in sight. people carry babies in 
body pouches to squeeze the whole family on their mopeds and the school
bags are either placed on the handlebars and/or the footwell.

navy silk flippy skirt, charity shop find!

inside one of the ancient houses within the town that are now museums

temples abound, the smell of incense is overwhelming at times

Hoi An market, we had chips and beer whist watching brisk sales

our hotel lounge bar

Jaeger beach kaftan (charitiy shop) split trousers Hoi An Market
It is pleasantly hot on the beach from about 7am, early morning is a good time to sunbathe, as the day goes on it becomes too hot.  We spent most of our time in the sea or shade.

But the best time is to be had in the towns and markets, exploring and observing every day life,

Useful tip:  always agree the price before you sit down to eat/drink so there are no misunderstandings, if it's beer on the street, it's easier to pay up front.  If extra dishes are placed in front of you (black tea, spring rolls, breads) and you didn't expect them and don't want them, be firm as you will be charged!