Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Miss Saigon: Decadence in HCMC

Motorcycle Madness
Good Morning Vietnam. Or rather, Good Evening! Having waved goodbye to Shanghai, I breezed off the aeroplane and the humid streets of Ho Chi Minh City greeted me in their balmy embrace. Watching the banana trees wave in the night air, I felt glad again to be back in a more 'rustic' part of Asia. The sensation didn't last long. The first impression any newcomer has to HCMC is unadulterated moped, motorbike madness. Pretty soon my taxi was in the centre of the melé, hurtling along at speed with hundreds and hundred of two wheelers. Upon arrival at the backpacker area, my cabbie got out, took my hand and personally led me across the road into lines of never ending traffic. I would come to realise that crossing the street is an art that requires nothing less than balls of steel: you simply take a deep breath and walk directly into the oncoming stream. 

Sampling the local cuisine in Ben Thanh market
I found my way down a typical, winding dark lane off Pham Ngu Lao to My My Art House, a tall narrow building (apparently there is a law in Vietnam which dictates that the wider the building the higher the tax and so most of them are built in this precariously vertical fashion). I was greeted by the very camp, friendly patron and harrumphed my backpack up 6 flights of tiny stairs to my shared dorm. Back in the real world. I was waiting for a friend to meet me and I was reluctant to get started on tourism until she arrived. So for two or 3 days I immediately got stuck into FOOD, one of my main passions and the chief inspiration for my trip to Vietnam. 

Mango salad - one of my all time favourite dishes
Hailing from Hackney (in recent years) where there is a huge Vietnamese community and ensuing proliferation of restaurants, I had become a fan of the cuisine. In Saigon (although it was officially renamed as HCMC in 1976 most people still prefer to call it by its previous name) I feasted upon shrimps in tamarind sauce, mango salad, spring rolls and squid from street stalls, tiny cafés and the wonderful Ben Thanh market. Ohhh and let's not forget Vietnamese iced coffee...made with condensed milk, the sickly sweet stuff is perhaps one of the world's greatest hangover cures and is best enjoyed local-style - on the pavement, sitting at a tiny folding metal table on an even tinier plastic chair. It is a great vantage point from which to sit and watch the city - at 8 million people the biggest in Vietnam - bustle by. 

Cocktails by the pool in Legend Hotel
My friend Sandra* arrived from London and we checked into the salubrious Legend Hotel, a good base from which to explore the more cosmopolitan and upmarket part of town (definitely not one for the backpacker budget, especially the fabulous bars around the Hai Ba Trung area). Having spent most of the previous 7 months in the developing world it was a complete contrast for me and I enjoyed the opportunity to indulge in luxury, eating rich meals and having a few cocktails by the pool whilst catching up with Sandra.  

Newspaper cuttings in the War Remnants Museum 
Keen to hit the sights, one of our first stops was the War Remnants Museum. Previously known as the Museum of Chinese & American War Crimes, it (as the name might infer) gives a rather one-sided but candid and shocking insight into the suffering of the victims of the Vietnam War. The ground floor is dedicated to the international anti war movement and I was surprised to see just how many countries spoke out in protest. 

The iconic image of the 'Napalm Girl'
The displays, however, became increasingly more distressing and by the time I arrived at the third floor, a gallery dedicated to the victims of Agent Orange chemical warfare, I embarrassingly burst into tears and sobbed in the middle of the room. I was ready to run by the time we reached the exhibits outside - an array of torture devices such as guillotines and the 'tiger cages' used to house Viet Cong prisoners in the French and South Vietnamese prisons on Phu Quoc and Con Son Islands. Hideous. After months and months of spiritual development, raising my own energetic vibration and connecting to the universal source of divine love, I was shocked and horrified to witness the worst of what man is capable of inflicting on man. Later, when I went to bed I was beset with flashbacks and nightmares of the horrific images that I had seen. 

Prayers in the pagodas of Cholon
A more civilised afternoon was spent exploring the colourful Chinese pagodas around Cholon, seeing an exhausting array of temples including one dedicated to the goddess of fertility (we both prayed that one day I will have babies!) We also enjoyed channelling 007... "we've been expecting you, Mr. Bond" in the marvellously retro and shagadelic Reunification Palace. This was the home of the South Vietnamese president and site of the end of the war when a North Vietnamese army tank crashed through its gates during the fall of Saigon. Sandra and I both used to work together in the broadcasting industry and we thought our colleagues would like the various bits of transmission equipment on display in the basement. 

Mosquito coils in the Chinese pagodas in Cholon 
Retro vibes in Reunification Palace
We took an obligatory tour out to see the Mekong Delta where we got to see the process of making rice papers and sweets, take a boat trip along the river and listen to traditional Vietnamese music. However, the whole experience was marred by the fact that it completely lacked authenticity, instead feeling as if we were on a souvenir-purchasing conveyor belt, hastily packed from one sales opportunity to the next.

Messing about on the Mekong
The birthday girl - looking fabulous as always
It happened to be Sandra's birthday (52 and fabulous - you would never be able to tell) during her time with me in Vietnam and we certainly celebrated in style. We were awakened by one of the hotel staff bringing in a birthday breakfast of champagne and cake. After polishing this off we arrived at our cooking class at Hoa Tuc Restaurant rather tipsy. Still, being domestic goddesses, we managed to rustle up cha gio sai (fried Saigon spring rolls with traditional nuoc mam dipping sauce), goi ga bap chuoi (shredded banana blossoms salad with chicken, peanuts and deep fried shallots-  presented in a banana leaf) and, of course pho-bo the traditional Vietnamese dish of beef noodles soup. Delicious - even though I say say myself! We spent the rest of the day relaxing by the pool before yet more champagne and cake...high tea in our hotel room which started out gracefully then ended with both of us dancing around to Madonna's 'Vogue' in the bathroom in our bikinis. Oh dear.

Playing Nigella in Hoa Tuc cookery class
Here's one I made earlier - Goi ga bap chuoi 
One of the 'must dos' in Saigon is to try out one of it's many rooftop bars and no expense was spared on Sandra's birthday. Although we had previously enjoyed a 'sundowner' at the much-vaunted Rex Hotel (famous hack hangout, back in the day), it paled in comparison with the Chill Sky Bar located on the 26th floor of the AB financial Tower. There we quaffed eye wateringly expensive margaritas (Sandra's signature cocktail) but it was undoubtedly worth it for the stunning aerial view over the whole of Saigon whose flat topography means that you can enjoy a glittering vista for miles around. A perfect spot to dance the night away.

Celebrating in style at the Chill Skybar

Tea party in the bath, anyone?
After all that eating, drinking and sightseeing we needed a rest so decamped from our beautiful room at Legend to go and relax on the beach in Mui Ne for a few days. On arrival at the leafy, boutique Mia Resort we were treated to chilled green tea served in beautiful porcelain cups. A tranquil few days was spent relaxing by the pool, sunbathing on the pristine white sand beach and enjoying treatments in the spa. We did venture out once or twice but found that none of the restaurants matched up to the excellence (or the seabass) of the Mia restaurant - and with everything else at our fingertips, why would we leave? After several days of beach relaxation, Sandra departed for London and I reluctantly left behind our fabulous 4 star resort to return to a bunk bed in a 4 bed dormitory at Saigon Youth Hostel. Well, what comes up must come down, I suppose. Asceticism would follow the decadence of the previous fortnight.. Or so I thought...

The pristine beach at Mia resort, Mui Ne

*Thanks, Sandy P, for the holiday of a lifetime and all your kindness, generosity and support with my future travel decision-making and the Edventure Nepal campaign fundraiser 

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Broken Plans & Legs: Beijing

The Chinese flag is ceremoniously raised & lowered 
every day by a guard of honour in Tiananmen Square
I had plans for China. Big plans. But the Universe continued to play a few tricks on me and all of them, it seems, were made to be broken. The country itself had hitherto been uninteresting but I was attracted by the draw of two very special people - my friend Will, based in Shanghai and working for Tesco and 'American Mark', a PhD scholar who was living in the Gansu province. Mark was studying how certain aspects of Chinese culture and social structure helped to support co-operation between individuals and he was doing this in the context of an industrial co-operative. I was going to join him there. It would be a unique opportunity to experience the full gamut of capitalism and communism which I thought summed up modern day China rather elegantly. 

Marching towards progress - 
Communist scupture in Tiananmen Square
However, a few days before my arrival I received a brief email from Mark imparting the unexpected news that he was to leave China immediately with no knowledge of if or when he would return. I was concerned by the uncharacteristically brief tone of his message and it turns out I had reason to be. It transpires that the Chinese government were in a particularly edgy mood at the time. Tensions were building between Beijing and Washington after the Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng escaped house arrest from his village in north eastern China and took refuge in the US embassy. Potentially one of the victims of this fallout, Mark, under suspicion of espionage from the Chinese government, had endured a 13hr interrogation by soldiers with AK47s in a Chinese military camp before being promptly extradited.*

The eerily beautific face of Mao is lit at night, 
lending it an ethereal glow
I had resigned myself to the fact that the Universe wished to divest me of travelling companions at this particular time (how ironic, given that all the time I was in India I had craved solitude...now that I actually wanted company it was being removed from me at every opportunity.) I planned to undertake an epic trip, heading up to Datong to see the Buddhist caves and a hanging monastery, on to Pingyao, the oldest walled town in China with Will and then continue on alone along the Silk Road. But it was not meant to be. After a day or two of sightseeing in Beijing which entailed walking for miles over vast areas, negotiating thousands of steps on the metro, my knackered legs well and truly gave out on me. I was physically unable to walk any more. And so the rest of the trip was spent recuperating and receiving treatment at a Chinese hospital. I must be the only person who has spent a significant amount of time in Beijing and not even made it to the Great Wall! 
The Forbidden City

Fortunately, before my legs gave out I was able to do the prerequisite tour of the incredible Forbidden City, the iconic imperial palace of the Ming dynasty and home to the Chinese emperors for 500 years. The complex consists of 980 buildings and spans a staggering 720,000 square metres... no wonder my legs were fooked after that! The site was so huge that it was difficult to snap photographs, never mind take it all in. But Will and I managed to find the perfect spot to enjoy a panoramic view over the city - sipping cocktails and wine at the Yin Bar, a classy establishment on top of the Emperor Hotel. 

Panoramic views of the Forbidden City at sunset from Yin Bar
Red lanterns in 'Ghost Street'
Our gastronomic tour continued with visits to the Beijing night food market. The less said about this the better really..I was groped not once but twice and we had some nasty interactions with unscrupulous stall holders who tried to rip us off. Perhaps one of our most memorable and tasty meals was had down 'Ghost Street'. Strung with hundreds of red Chinese lanterns and stretching over one kilometre, Gui Je (as it is officially known) is Beijing's most famous eating street. It is populated with more than 200 restaurants open 24hrs and serving all kinds of Chinese cuisine including the infamous and delicious Peking Duck. This dish can also, bizarrely, be found in vegetarian version in most restaurants - fashioned out of tofu (I think) but bearing a very close resemblance to the real deal - skin and all. 

Will looking bookish at the Bookworm Cafe
Speaking of vegetarianism, we also enjoyed a fabulous and flamboyant feed at the Pure Lotus, a vegetarian restaurant with a twist. The only way I can describe this is like 'Alice on acid' - although given that it is a Buddhist restaurant ran by monks, there are no chemical influences at all - not even alcohol served. Sumptuous dishes made from fruit, flowers, vegetables and all kinds of goodness were served up flamboyantly on enormous leaves, in silver art nouveau dishes. Glittering chandeliers hung from the ceiling and monks in jazzed up, sequinned garb, flitted between the tables. 
Art in Book worm Cafe

However, our favourite hang out became the Bookworm Cafe - a restaurant, library, bookshop and events space all rolled into one. Here Will and I enjoyed some 'Slow Boat' real ale on draught (wow! for the first time in 7 months!) and marvelled at their single malt whiskey selection. It was a beautiful place to relax with your nose in one of the many good books adorning the shelves and get lost in the art they had on display. Another little gem we came across was the 12 SQM bar, once famous for being the smallest bar in Beijing and now a gorgeous little atmospheric pub with a great selection of booze. The Ozzy barman was very friendly and a meeting of the local book club was in full swing during our visit. 

Hutong life
We stayed at an excellent hostel called Red Lantern House, a traditional Chinese courtyard house set in a sleepy Hutong - narrow streets or alleyways traditionally lined with courtyard houses and common in Beijing. I enjoyed hobbling around the Hutong and taking in the local life - carts full of melons trundling along, street vendors selling everything from fresh ginger to dates, nuts and '1,000 year old' preserved eggs. Some of my most wonderful, human interactions in China were in the Hutong. Despite having no shared language at all, smiles and gestures melted hearts and opened doors. It was lovely to wander around at night as stall holders barbecued in the street, people sat peeling vegetables and old men played cards. 

My legs during moxybustion. YUK!
A serendipitous discovery was that the best Chinese alternative medicine hospital was located just around the corner from Red Lantern. Here I received massage, acupuncture, electric wave therapy and moxybustion (cupping) every day. This was the first time I had tried any of these treatments and it was certainly an experience, having to lie there whilst a doctor poked sticks into my legs. However, I felt grateful that I was able to get such comprehensive treatment so easily and I felt that it all added to the authenticity of the experience. From Beijing. Will and I took advantage of his corporate air miles and flew to the not-so-Chinese tropical island of Hainan (still part of China but off the mainland). There we lay on our backs on the beach for a week, enjoying fresh coconuts and sunshine. Well, even yogis need a holiday sometimes, don't they? 

"I've got a lovely pair of coconuts" in Hainan

*Luckily, Mark escaped unharmed and has now been allowed back into China, where he continues to pursue his studies...

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