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Au revoir Viet Nam

22nd March 2006

LAST DAY IN VIETNAM

A sobering last day in Vietnam as I chose somewhat perversely to visit the War Remnants Museum, 28 Vo Van Tan, District 3. I needed an excuse to cry, and boy did I get it. Every visitor to Vietnam needs to come here to put it all in perspective. As I looked at the photographs taken by brave war photographers, I couldn’t help but draw parallels with what is happening in Iraq. Have we learnt nothing from these atrocities?

Had my last lunch date with T at TIB, 187 Hai Ba Trung District 3, which serves Vietnamese food from Hue region. Tried deep-fried soft-shell crab, which you dip into a lime and salt dip. Yummy. Did a last dash to Ben Thanh market to buy freshly ground coffee, where I saw a rat the size of a small cat scurry past me. Even the trader shrieked with shock – don’t think she’s seen one that big before either! So, to my last meal in Vietnam. It had to be my absolute favourite, a bowl of soothing pho, to take me on my way. I linger over it for…
21st March 2006

LAST NIGHT IN VIETNAM

Arrived back In Ho Chi Minh City in time to go out for dinner with T and S. We went to the Temple Club, 29 Ton That Tiep, District 1. The Luxe guide describes the place as ‘excellent Vietnamese fare with flair’ and I tend to agree. Loved the antique fittings and screens that added to the sense of intimacy. Apparently Terence Conran, Ralph Fiennes and Jeremy Irons like to go here but I’m yet to see one celebrity here! Then on for cocktails at the rooftop terrace of Caravelle: Saigon Saigon, 19 Lam Son Square, District 1 – great views of both the skyline and the girls ‘working’ the rich tourists. The evening would not have been complete without a final Passion fruit Martini at Q Bar. And I was saved the debauchery of Apocalypse Now, a supposedly late-night club, but it shut at 12!

Propaganda art in Hanoi

Was taken to one of the best places in Hanoi to buy freshly cured ‘Thit Bo Kho’ on Hang Bong St. Delicious chewy blocks of beef jerky which expand in the mouth the more you chew, releasing a salt beef chilli sensation. Highly addictive stuff and surprisingly filling too!

R & Y bought me an original propaganda artwork from aptly named Propaganda art gallery. The message means: ‘Strongly promote industrialization and modernization for the goal of a strong nation, prosperous people and democratic society.’ It’s a perfect example of high-impact advertising using a bold, bright and graphic style that draws your attention. The artist, Luong Anh Dung, now fifty-three, graduated from Hanoi Industrial Art College and has worked for the government as a propaganda artist since 1968. He said: ‘I believe in socialist ideals. If I didn’t, I could not create my paintings.’ Dung’s inspiration comes from his faith in the system and he always paints in bold strokes, bright colours and simple repeti…

Cha Ca-tastic!

Lunch was taken at ‘the oldest restaurant in Vietnam, open since 1871’ at Cha Ca La Vong, 14 Pho Cha Ca. R & Y wanted me to try the local speciality of Cha Ca, truly delicious crispy pieces of firm white fish, fried with spring onions, shallots, yellow onions, parsley and sweet dill. We climbed a steep, creaky wooden staircase to find a room full of local families eating together with gusto. I knew I was in for a treat! As soon as we sat down, a bowl of rice vermicelli arrived, followed by a clay-pot full of burning coals. A huge plate of fresh herbs and various dipping sauces were added to the table before a sizzling pan of golden yellow fish was brought through from the kitchen. Help yourself and keep adding fresh herbs to the pan until all is eaten.

At that very moment I realised why I love eating Vietnamese food so much; in England we are accustomed to having one dish with our ‘meat and three veg’ in one go. Part of the enjoyment of eating out here is that you can play around …

Scooby Snacks

Hard to ignore the country’s treatment of animals, especially pet dogs, which are often tied to short pieces of string and never taken for walks. Today I realised why their owners were perhaps hesitant to let them loose; dog is a food speciality and this restaurant on Tran Nhat Duat was packed full of appreciative diners.

Flowers sellers, Dong Xuan market

19th March 2006

HANOI

I felt that my whistle-stop tour would not be complete without a visit to Ha Noi. Its name means ‘River Exterior’ and is a reference to the Red River; 100km of its dikes embrace the city. I feel so privileged to have lots of kind friends willing to host me as I travel from South to North. I've been so inspired by this beautiful country and its people and have been writing and taking photos every day. Today I was shown the sites of Hanoi from the back of a motorbike with R as my host and tour guide, and B (his cute 5 year old son) between us. The Northern capital is a lot more chilled than Sai Gon, with 1.2m inhabitants compared to the former capital’s 4.5m, so riding around is safer and the only true way to explore the city. Motorcyclists even stop at red lights here! The city has an air of a provincial French town in the 1930s with its blocks of ochre buildings, peaceful lakes, shaded boulevards and green public parks.

The morning was spent wandering the Old Qu…
18th March 2006

SATURDAY IN SAIGON

T has always been my perfect shopping companion and if she weren’t working in travel, she’d be the perfect Personal Shopper/Stylist. She knows exactly what I like and where to get it, which saved me days of getting lost and returning empty-handed. Phew. Got most of my shopping done around Ton That Thiep St and even had time to pop into Fanny’s for ice cream. T says it’s a typical meeting place for Vietnamese women instead of bars, as the majority don’t drink or smoke. Saigon Kitsch is a great shop, 50s-style retro with commie-prop gallery upstairs. Shopped out, we took a taxi to L’Apothiquaire, 63 Le Thanh Ton St, District 1 for some serious pampering. This day spa is set in an apothecary-style French 100-year old building with limed woods, lilac shutters and a great pool.

Ready to hit the tiles, we decided to splash out and go for dinner at Xu Restaurant Lounge, Level One, 71-75 Hai Ba Trung, District 1. As with most exclusive new establishments, you m…

Hoi An tailors

16th March 2005

HOI AN

Got up early to cycle down to the local market to watch the locals haggling over fish, spices and vegetables. People buy their fresh products every day, sometimes twice a day, so they take real joy in selecting the perfect ingredient each time. Went back to the Mango Rooms for a light lunch and enjoyed a nice chat with Duc and his friends. Had dessert at Tam Tam Café opposite; I’m not a big fan of ice cream normally but since I’ve been in Vietnam, I’ve developed a real taste for it. I had lemon and mango sorbet, and vanilla ice-cream, which came decorated with long strips of yellow, red and green sugared papaya delicately curled around each scoop, topped off with a green papaya cigarette shaped wafer – heaven!

Then headed off for my third (and final) fitting at Yaly, praying that I’d still fit into my suit after this indulgence. The suit and two pairs of trousers fitted like a dream but my camisole was sadly far too small to fit over my head. So while I waited for …

Yaly Couture

15th March 2005

HOI AN


Staying at Ancient House Resort on Cua Dia, a small boutique hotel with spacious, immaculate and stylish rooms. Can imagine that this would be a good place for honeymooners, as the service is discreet and the gardens and pool are beautiful. Got an upgrade on the second day to a room with a balcony so I can now sit outside and write, which is a marked improvement.

I get free bike rental here so I’ve been out exploring. Riding a bike after so long and in Asia was a thrilling experience. Make me think how much quicker I could get about and see so much more. Today I cycled off the beaten track for a good 2 hours until I came to a boatyard where I pulled up for a refreshing drink. Don’t think these people see many white faces round here. I was drinking alone then suddenly there were about 15 faces staring at me. Curiosity got the better of one old man who hopped on his moped and escorted me down the road! I noticed that even this far out, huge speakers blast out propaga…

View from Hoi An footbridge

14th March 2006

HOI AN

Drove past the memorable Marble Mountains en route to Hoi An. A real highlight of the trip so far has been this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hoi An is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century. Its buildings and its street plan reflect both indigenous and foreign influences. You can get lost for days wandering the streets, or take a ride along the banks of the Mekong, past the paddy fields to the beach.

Visited Ly’s café on Nyugen Hue to meet Ly, who has owned this restaurant for the past 10 years. I’d been sent to say hello from F and taste her Cao Lao. I expected someone older but instead was warmly greeted by a beautiful, trendy young woman who smelt really good too! I was lucky to stumble on the place as I’d forgotten the address, and the strange thing is that I didn’t realise I was at Ly’s until I picked up the menu! I’d left it quite late to look for a meal (10pm) so most places had shut…

Citroen Traction Avant, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

12th March 2006

HO CHI MINH CITY

Just back from Phan Thiet, Mui Ne Beach, a relaxed beach town in Binh Thuan province, 200km northeast from Ho Chi Minh City. This was a good call on T’s behalf as it was the perfect place to recuperate from jetlag and a gentle transition into Vietnam. I jumped straight from the plane into a minibus although I might as well have stepped into a game of Wipeout. My head was spinning from the lack of sleep and rank wine that I was swigging but nothing quite prepared me for this first road trip. If you thought the Greeks or the Thais drove like crazy people, then you've seen nothing. There are no rules other than if you are overtaking, it is up to the oncoming vehicle to slow down. If the car in front is moving too slowly, you simply tailgate and hoot continuously until they move out the way. If they don’t, you accelerate to overtake, keep hooting and hope for the best. Motorcyclists don't always put their lights on at night either- apparently that&#…