Friday, 29 October 2010

Hoi An Photo Tour

Today another very early start. I was picked up in a mini-bus at 5.00am. Me, a retired guy from Florida who takes photographs professionally, and young UK couple living in Sydney. And our charming guide and host, Etienne. He has lived here for about 5 years and has been running the tour for 6 months. This is the Hoi An Photo Tour.

We bumped over tracks to the riverside and boarded a little ferry boat just as the sun was starting to rise - except it was cloudy today so no actual sun, but a moody light with a sky that looked full of rain. The jetty on the other side was packed with motorbikes and bicycles waiting for the trip across to the town side where many of the villagers work in construction at this time of year. On the way Etienne reviewed our cameras, our style of photographing and gave some basics of the art. For me, it was so exciting to be shown how to use my lovely little camera by manually setting aperture etc. A whole new world has opened up.

Etienne told us that to take photos of people in Viet Nam, all you have to do is smile a lot, say hello, have some little exchange. Tell them where you come from. He said they get a buzz from talking with the foreigners. He knows many of the village characters and they are not shy about being the target of the lens. The little children were a little shy, though the boys on bikes were like cheeky boys everywhere and made a bit of a pest of themselves. We wandered around, seeing the fish processing area, the communal ancestor pagoda, a fish sauce factory, stopping for coffee with a local family, visiting a woman who bakes small cakes and has done this every day for 25 years (we sampled her cakes too). Etienne joked with the local drunk, a man he says smells of rice wine every morning but always has a laugh about something. I managed to take some portraits I am really happy with. I'm usually shy about taking pics of people but this was different, the people so open and friendly and so happy to be shown their photos. The guys with the fancy cameras and lenses took some amazing portraits I think.

Have a look at Etienne's Gallery here. Today was not a fishing day as it is the wrong time of year, but there was lots to see just strolling around this unspoilt village.

The trip ended with us picking up bicycles and riding for about 20 min back into the Old Town. That was great for me - I had been feeling slightly nervous about getting on a bike, and it was such a joy cruising along the tracks with little traffic. We rode past padi fields with geese and water buffalo and then alongside of the market, finishing up at an art gallery in town for tea.

And after all that, I was back at my hotel in time to enjoy my breakfast - those banana pancakes I have been looking forward to. Whoo hoo.

Me and Julia

I hired a bike and rode out to the beach with one and half million dong in my pocket. Big wind, choppy brown ocean. Some foreigners swimming anyway. Not much to see but on the way back there was an unassuming restaurant hanging out over the river, looking very inviting. Good enough for a wind-swept and dusty millionaire, I thought.

I sat on the rickety deck and ordered steamed squid. The name of the place is Son: A song of natur. I was presented with one plate of artfully arranged vegetables, steamed rice and chopped tender squid with a bowl of tasty dipping sauce. In the river a man and a wife were throwing their net from a small boat. I sipped ginger tea, read my book, took some photos. The man came to talk to me, the usual "Where you from?". He asked me to sign a small visitors book.

Here's the thing. An entry from the page before me "My partner and I dined here and very much enjoyed the experience. I hope that this visit will help to bring our two countries closer together. Julia Juillard."

I said to the man, you had the Prime Minister here? He shrugged, seemed to think I was some sort of crazy foreigner. Do I take it she didn't have a troop of body guards and press jockeys with her? Our Julia sat here in this spot just yesterday? - I checked online, sure enough, she is here for her first summit with Asian leaders. Get that!

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Why no pics?

I have been taking lots of photos using the new camera. It came with instruction books in Chinese (which I dumped) and a CD containing the English manual (which I have not accessed). So I'm using it on AUTO setting, true point-and-shoot, although I know the camera offers much more. That said, I'm delighted with the images, especially the night time shots. Hoi An is wonderful at night with gorgeous colorful silk lanterns everywhere. I read that each month there is a lantern night in the Old Town with traditional music and so on, but to me every night is lantern night. It is magic. So I hope I can work out how to get some photos onto the blog for you.

I do have a USB card reader but the computers here in the hotel have blocked USB drives. I had a CD burned the other day with the first lot of pics, so I'll try later to upload that to Picasa online. The wifi network here is excellent, and I'd love to have my laptop. But it is good to travel light.

The lovely ladies at the hotel made me a bowl of pho for breakfast this morning. I didn't say that I had been looking forward to trying the banana pancake - but that can wait for tomorrow. Pho is a beef noodle soup that is the usual local breakfast I gather. I enjoyed it, but still had to have one of those crispy baguettes as well. (I skipped dinner, so I figure it's OK to have two breakfasts.)

My old shoes broke in the rain. I found a shop here with German Rieker shoes for under US$50. So I have new shoes now. There are many shops here that make shoes to order - I hear the American girls here in the hotel talking about having dresses made and then going next door to get matching shoes. ("I like went wild, I'm having this totally awesome red dress made, and the sweetest red shoes") I'm not so sure about the quality. These shoes have to get me a long ways!

Who's for spring rolls?

The Red Bridge Cooking School is a great experience. We started with a visit to the local markets to learn about all the ingredients common in local cooking. Quite an experience in torrential rain. Everyone, locals and tourists both, was wearing plastic condom-raincoats in lurid colours. Then a boat trip down the river to an unassuming garden pavillion and a highly professional performance. The chef demonstrated each dish and then we each made it ourselves. A team of roving assistants made sure we got it right.

So now I can not only make spring rolls, but I can make my own rice paper wrappers too.

And the clay pot eggplant dish is a winner. The recipe is on the website, give it a go.

We finished with a bit of a feast before the boat trip back to town. I slept all afternoon.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Mi Son

It was a 5.00 am pick-up at the hotel for the tour to Mi Son, here known as Mi Son Holy Land or Mi Son World Culture Heritage. Pre-dawn I'm standing in front of some house in the suburbs of Hoi An with a bunch of young French, Scottish and Germans, eating a fresh bread roll torn open by hand with a fried egg inside. Then about an hour's drive into increasingly rural areas. The advantage of that early start is we are the only group at Mi Son. There is the sound of the birds and the chatter and laughter of unseen people working on the restoration of G complex, currently closed.

Mi Son was the centre of the Cham Kingdom from the 4th to 11th centuries. In places there is brickwork that was restored by UNESCO in 1999 and you can recognise the original bricks as the ones that look more recent. The craftsmanship is mind-boggling. Most of the significant stone relics are in the Cham museum in Hue which I visited the other day. The tour guide pointed out the headless Shiva statues and told us that one theory is that the Americans beheaded them to terrorise the VC. She pointed out bomb craters, and asked the group who knew about Mi Lai. I think only a couple of us nodded. Someone asked, why did the US bomb Mi Son? The VC were hiding here, she explained.

We were delivered back to the hotel in time to have a second breakfast - yay!

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Old Houses of Hoi An

This morning I visited 5 historic sites in Hoi An Ancient Town. One is a family tomb for worshipping ancestors, the others are traditional homes, some 200 years old. The guides at each house profess to be part of the family that has lived in the house for 6 or even 8 generations. The families still live in these houses but conservation and restoration work is supported by the Government. Architecturally they manage to be both beautiful and functional with a balance seldom achieved in our modern buildings. Flood marks on the walls of those closest to the river show that there have been 3 metre floods, but it is more common that each year there is up to one metre of water in the lower areas. I saw trapdoors and pulley systems, for pulling the furniture and possessions up to the loft at these times.

The ticket for five historic sites says "Please dress decently, Sleeveless blouse, drawers and over the knee skirts or dress are not welcome inside the show places."

Lucky I wasn't wearing my over-the-knee drawers today.

After two visits I stopped for coffee and croissant. After the fifth I had steamed seafood spring rolls. The boy on his bike going around the cafes selling the English-language daily newspaper says "hello again". And again...

As I sit here in the foyer of the hotel, sweat is running off me - well maybe you didn't need to know that but I share it for atmospheric purposes. The middle of the day is resting time, shops close their doors and the kids are back from morning school (two shifts per day).

One small treasure - Yes, this is a communist country but I didn't realise there was a curfew. Last night at about 11.00 pm there was a vehicle going down the street with a megaphone, and a tinny official voice intoning "Off de-lay-aits. Off de-lay-aits." It took me a little time to realise the message was to turn off the lights. Had my light been on I'd have offed it immediately.

Every corner has the motorbike drivers calling Hello, madame, you take motorbike. I was rather insulted by one this afternoon who added, We go very slow madame.

Someone called today "Motorbike Madame? We go Easy Rider. Very good enjoy Viet Nam easy rider!" Exactly, but not for me thanks.

Thien Thanh Hotel

In Hoi An I am staying at the Thien Thanh Hotel. The name means Blue something - Blue butterfly or blue sky, I can't remember. Anyway I love it here! There are rooms at the back with balcomies overlooking a field of water-cabbage, but I have a room overlooking the street. Double-glazing is very effective. The room is lovely, simple and stylish - there are fresh flowers on the bed each day and the wall-hangings are ethnic embroideries.

The buffet breakfast is served on a deck over that paddy field thingy. This morning there was a woman in a conical limpet hat wading through the greenery with a basket picking leaves. All that is missing is the water-buffalo, maybe he'll be there tomorrow.

There is a small swimming pool and a restaurant. There are internal atrium spaces with hanging plants and to get to the back deck you walk over a little bridge, and there are golden carp swimming in the pond. Which must be why there doesn't seem to be a mosquito problem.

Pictures to come I hope - I need somewhere I can upload photos from my camera.

Joy of foot massage

I'm walking on air! A one-hour foot reflexology session at the Hoi An Day Spa. Somehow I find I'm booked in for a manicure/pedicure and facial tomorrow. It must have gone to my head. Or something. And jsut as well I was walking on air, because a big rat came straight towards me on the road when I was walking home. Cruised on by, that rat.

I had a late lunch/early dinner at Cafe 96 on the waterfront. Vietnamese tea and
Cao Lau - noodles with pork slices (only I had the tofu version), bean sprouts and herbs, one of which is a Vietnamese basil and also something like watercress. The vegetables in Hoi An are said to be the tastiest in all Viet Nam due to a more pure environment.

Friday, 22 October 2010


It is taking me some time to get used to this. Yesterday I had a guide for the day, and at the end I gave him a tip. Working it out later I had given him less than $1. Is it more insulting to not tip at all or to do it badly? I have no idea.

The pace in Hue is far more relaxed. It is a place I would be happy to see on a hired bicycle but on this visit I am travelling in an airconditioned car with a guide. I got a 6.30 am flight from Ha Noi and the guide was waiting at the airport with a sign. The agency had booked me into the Ngoc Huong Hotel - probably my last experience of the 3-star level of accommodation, I prefer the laid-back feeling of the budget place I was at in Ha Noi, and of course I'd be happy with 5 star. When I am reborn as the wife of a wealthy expat, that is.

So today's mission was to have rice noodle soup for breakfast. I have to admit I also had plenty of baguette with pineapple jam, so perhaps it was a very small step.

In Hue the deal is, a trip on the Perfume River by dragon boat, a tour of the Imperial Palace where the Emporers lived and ruled throughout the eighteenth century, a visit to a Buddhist monastery and some tombs. Oh, and a walk through the busy market - quite good to have a guide for that. My guide has a degree in tourism from the University here in Hue. Later today we drive to Marble Mountain, and over the pass to Hoi An, stopping in Da Nang for some more sightseeing.

There is a gallery and workshop over the road where beautiful young girls in colourful Ao Dai sit in breezy comfort painstakingly embroidering the finest and most beautiful paintings. I can't help but think that the girls are only the front-line of these delicate and intricate productions. You can see some here

Monday, 18 October 2010

Business/lifestyle idea

I have this fabulous idea. I think what Hong Kong needs is a specialist yarn and wool shop. It could be a destination shop with classes and drop-in knitting and weaving sessions and could host visiting craftspeople. I'd call it Shrek-O of course.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Happy shopper

Second day in Hong Hong. I went shopping with the intention of buying a more serious camera. On the basis of research I had decided to buy a Nikon P7000, but once I had one in my hands all I could think about was the review by a professional photographer who said he had needed to read the manual 3 times. Heavier than I expected, with buttons and switches for Africa, I admit it made feel daunted.

I was lucky enough to get someone who spoke good English in a local shop here in Tsuen Wan. "You need this one" he said immediately. It didn't take him long to change my mind. Do I look that stupid? So amyway, the camera I have ended up with is a Canon Powershot S95. It was a good price to start with and they threw in an 8Gb card, a case, tripod, spare battery, and USB card reader. It is small and unobtrusive and is getting a good workout. I spent the rest of the morning wandering through the market streets until the Sunday crowds and the heat got too much.

Off to test out the night-time features of the new camera now.