And home in the UK. The trip is done, and it was fantastic.
10 April 2016
Last day in Vietnam, we're all packed and ready to go. Time for a stroll across the Perfume river. It's 10am and the heat is already oven-like, and yet I'm going to miss it.
9 April 2016
Visiting some of the spectacular Royal mausoleums. Once was so lovely the King lived in it for 16 years (avoiding affairs of state by the sounds of it) before he actually died.
Lunch at Les Jardins de la Carambole, yet more wonderful food. The central pet of the country has lived up to its gastronomic reputation.
We had shrimp and pork steamed with rice paste, summer rolls, crispy pancake with port and prawns, salmon and mango, chilli and lemongrass grilled prawns (lots of prawns today), a green mango salad with (you guessed it) prawns, and finally banana fritters. All washed down with some local beer.
Stopping off at a Bhuddist temple dating back to 1603 and the home of the self-immolation get monk from the Pulitzer price winning photo of 1963 (I think).
There was a courtyard full of bonsai trees, some over 100 years old. They're tended by the monks and - along with a stone and grass garden - felt almost zen in approach.
Exploring the citadel and forbidden city of Hue. It's in the process of being sympathetically restored (in direct contrast to the other - more famous - forbidden city further north). It's full of vibrant colours and greenery, the pavilions are human in scale and yet the whole is very impressive.
Travelling through Hue by cyclo, I felt bad as I was about twice the size of the guy peddling away behind me.
8 April 2016
Bun bo hue and a tropical sunset in Hue. They're serious about their chilli condiments here 😉
Driving through the lush countryside from Hoi An to Hue. Beautifully verdant with jungle that has been regrown after the defoliation of the Vietnam war. Many of the trees are gum trees from Australia as they grow quickly. The oil from the leaves is used to make massage oil.
As well as rice and gum trees the ocean and lagoons are full of shrimp and shellfish farms. They're the source of much of the wonderful prawns we've been eating.
7 April 2016
Dinner at Morning Glory, definitely a destination restaurant and the meal of the trip so far. It included a curry of local clams, smoked aubergine and pork mince and the eponymous green stir fried in loads of garlic and chilli.
6 April 2016
We spent a morning going round the market with the knowledgable Phoung answering my steady stream of questions, "what's this? What do you do with that? How do you make those?" And so on.
And then we were taken upriver in a motorised barge to the Red Bridge cooking school where we learned a number of useful things. For example, how to make rice noodle sheets, banh xeo pancakes and interesting titbits like the best way of chopping spring onions (it involve folding them and really works).
Then we got to sit, chat and eat lunch - at least one part of which we had made earlier.
5 April 2016
Enjoying a slow wander around Hoi An, tailors, markets and now a beer. Or three.
4 April 2016
A brief walk around Hoi An. It's an old trading port and you can clearly see the Chinese, Japanese and European influences on the architecture. The colours are also wonderfully evocative, yellow walls, purple flowers and terracotta roofs, all wilting gently in the tropical climate.
Making up Banh Mi to take away, fuel for a walk around Hoi An. I counted five different types of pork going in to this types Vietnamese sandwich: pate, mince, sausage, belly and BBQ shoulder. Add some aromatic herbs and tasty sauces and you have a wonderful lunch.
Arrived in Da Nang, 10 degrees cooler and a little clearer and cleaner looking than Saigon. A slightly more relaxed feel, even from the air.
3 April 2016
Spent today travelling through the lush hinterlands of the Mekong Delta. I realise that we probably saw the best of the area, and much of the work there - brick making, vermicelli noodle making, coconut processing - seemed repetitive, difficult and dull. But the comparison with the Cambodian equivalent was stark. There was none of the grinding poverty. People lived in houses, not tin and wood shacks. There was running water, kitchens and plenty of food. People chatted and laughed as they relaxed in hammocks out of the heat, and waved at us as we chugged through on a cyclo or river boat. And there were plants and flowers and animals everywhere.
Finally a multi course lunch at the mango restaurant: clear pineapple, tomato, chicken and bun noodle soup, coconut steamed prawns, deep fried elephant ear fish rolls (constructed at the table by the nimble fingered waiter), mild chicken curry and a fruit platter. Pretty much finished us off for the day.
This is a coconut processing plant where the coconuts are stripped down into their constituent parts before being passed on to charcoal makers (the hard shell), fibre makers (the outer fibrous bits), oil processors (the nut water) and made into candy (the pulp).
Unlike the other work, this also looked actively dangerous as well as hard. There were many opportunities to impale or slice bits off yourself. The candy was pretty tasty though.
Being taken down a small channel. It was dense with vegetation and it was very clear why the Viet Cong chose this area as their HQ, and why the regular South Vietnamese army and US troops were unable to find them. Without these women to paddle us around we would've been hopelessly lost.
Next up we hit up a rice vermicelli making factory, manned and managed by a single family. The rice noodle sheet is made from tapioca starch and rice flour (unlike rice paper wrappers which is just rice flour) mixed with water, rolled into sheets and steamed before being laid out on bamboo beds in the sun to dry.
After 2 or 3 hours drying they are lightly oiled and then shredded by a rolling machine into noodles, bunched, weighed and packed. All of this by hand. The work looked hard and repetitive, but the outcome is good food.
A small brick making complex with three kilns, one in use, one that housed a gaggle of ducklings and a third lying fallow. They have to bake the bricks for nineteen days with a fire fuelled by rice husks. Oh and we saw ducks and chickens and cats (and kittens).
Travelling down small (ish) tributaries and branches of the Mekong river in our rather luxurious boat. The banks were covered in fishing boats, brick kilns and colour processing factories. All small, almost entirely manual and family owned & operated.
Shots of the village back roads from the back of the cyclo, a sort of motorised tricycle with a seating platform. Our guide told us that the locals called it an "iron horse"
2 April 2016
Dinner was the most surprising and amazing buffet I think I've ever experienced. There was no worries about food being kept out to long etc, mostly because the food was still alive. At least the seafood was. The Seabass (an enormous 18-24" beauty) was steamed on its very own platter. And apart from the crab, was the highlight. And there was unlimited cava too. This was my kinda meal. And packed full of things you might hesitate trying if they weren't that fresh/alive.
We visited Cu Chi tunnels this morning to see the "reality" of the Viet Cong tunnels in South Vietnam. They were shockingly close to Saigon and would have been almost impossible to find. Even though they had been specially widened to allow western tourists to squeeze through them, I still felt my shoulders brushing the sides, and my head hurting the top, and I was on all fours.
We also shot some of the guns that they used at the time, an AK47 (me) and and M16 (Hari). That was shocking in a different way. After ten shots - even with ear protectors - my ears were ringing and I was flinching involuntarily at every shot. I hate to imagine what a firefight would have been like. No wonder people's nerves were shredded. And I missed the target every time.
We finally found some excellent pho, my first in Vietnam. The place itself was historical (an attack on the Americans had been planned in an upper room), and the pho was excellent. A deep and aromatic beef broth that was sweeter and less salty than it's Hanoi based equivalent, noodles that were perfectly springy and a great pile of herbs. Happy day, a reviving meal for a hot and busy day.
1 April 2016
Landed in Saigon and the difference was immediately apparent. This is more brash, more money, loads more cars and mopeds. It's clearly much better off. And many more people. It feels much more like a city, a place I am familiar with. Here we are drinking sundowners at the Caravelle's rooftop bar, by the old opera house... Tropical sun, lazily turning fans, sparkling wine, the whole nine yards. And it is fun.
30 March 2016
I'm just about recovered from yesterday's bout of flu-like symptoms (could it be dengue, malaria ?! Nope, it was a sore throat) and now very much enjoying driving out of Siem Reap to the Beng Mealea temple ruins. Until 2007 they were pretty heavily mined so it is still not restored or heavily touristed. Although this is changing and we still had to wait a few times for a Chinese coach tour to finish snapping their glamorously posed pics before moving on.
Stopped off for lunch on our way back. We asked to sample some typical Khmer food but ended up in a tourist restaurant. Belatedly we realised that, outside of the few roadside shacks we'd seen selling BBQ frogs, there probably weren't any Khmer joints. The people and countryside are just too poor outside of the city. The beef skewers they gave us were delicious however - thin slices wrapped around green beans and BBQ-ed. Definitely the pick of lunch.
The atmospheric and crumbling ruins of Beng Mealea. Yet to be restored it feels like an adventure just to clamber around them.
29 March 2016
I'd have posted a picture of the early part of the afternoon relaxing by the pool. It's just that I was so relaxed I dozed off...
The afternoon was spent visiting the Tomb Raider temple and it's strangling trees, nose-kissing an ancient Khmer King and otherwise exploring two more, very different temples. These ones felt less like great monuments and more like something we'd just stumbled on in the jungle (give or take a few hundred tourists). It was pretty easy to find quiet out-of-the-way spots overlooked by others though. The advantage of having an engaged and knowledgable guide. Thank you Pirom.
Finally, breakfast time (this was only the first breakfast)... Lots of fresh fruit.
The first morning, we got to see the tropical sun rising over Angkor Wat, and then explored the complex as the dawn gently covered the sandstone with a syrupy light. A beautiful and busy morning. Hard to believe that this was built over 900 years ago, and survived battles as recently as the 1980s (albeit with some bullet holes).
28 March 2016
It's layover time in Hong Kong, theses lounges (and the business class seats) have made it so much easier than I expected. Could get used to this. Time for a coffee and a 45 minute sitdown to give my brain a chance to catch up.
My kinda airport food, shu mai and fresh steamed char sui pork buns.
27 March 2016
In our seats, fizz to hand. I think we're ready for the arduous journey to Asia... 😉
Enjoying lounge living in Terminal 3. I could get used to this.