Puppies and pyjamas

If I were to name two things that have particularly drawn my attention on the streets of South East Asia it would be puppies and pyjamas, a peculiar pairing perhaps, but an amusing feature nonetheless.
Stray dogs are rife in South East Asia. For the most part they seem to be happily whiling away their time sleeping on street corners, ignoring the people around them and occasionally rummaging through the litter. Some strays have been adopted by local families (or perhaps it’s the other way round?) making fantastic pets with lovely temperaments. The general lack of animal welfare infrastructure means that the practice of neutering is uncommon and consequently puppies abound everywhere. We’ve had some great fun playing with incredibly cute little puppies (I think Simon is afraid one may suddenly emerge from my baggage at the airport) including one that we nicknamed Bart, as he insisted on trying to eat Simon’s shorts as we played a game of cards. Many a playful puppy has made us smile on our trip (even if Simon is laughing more at me than the puppies).

As for the second p, pyjamas, I am
almost at a loss to explain. I was once shopping in the sales when I found a lovely floral hooded cardigan, for some reason hanging up amongst the sleepwear with ‘sleep well’ printed on the label. I looked around but couldn’t spot any matching bottoms and figuring no one would know if it was a pyjama top anyway, decided to buy it. I certainly know other people who have bought nighties and worn them out as dresses, however I never expected to see so many women wandering around the streets, carrying out their daily business wearing what can only be described as pyjamas. I imagine that these ladies don’t simply decide to go out for the day dressed in their sleepwear but have simply chosen to wear something light and comfortable in the heat. However, for those of you back home who have felt the temptation to walk down to the cornershop in your PJs you can rest assured that no-one here would bat an eyelid! Whilst I can perhaps understand the wardrobe choice based on comfort, I must admit that the decision to wear matching teddy bear-patterned tops and bottoms on the streets mystifies me!


Food for thought part three – Vietnam

A lot of the food in Vietnam is very oriental in style and flavour, probably due to the thousand or so years that the country was occupied by the Chinese. Some aspects of Vietnamese cuisine have reinforced an opinion that we formed in China, namely that one of the benefits of being vegetarian is that you’re far less likely to accidentally find yourself eating some undesirable animal or part thereof, say duck eggs containing nearly mature embryos, or the delights of dog meat. Thankfully, despite not being veggie, we managed to steer clear of these delicacies whilst sampling some of Vietnam’s other specialities…

One dish that can be found fairly ubiquitously throughout Vietnam is pho. Pho is a noodle soup usually served for breakfast but that can also be found at other mealtimes. Pho consists of a flavoursome broth with rice noodles and chopped spring onions accompanied by either bo (beef), ga (chicken), or lon (pork). The noodle soup is also often supplied (although not always) with some fresh greens (coriander, mint and lettuce) and uncooked bean sprouts bringing a refreshing crunch to the dish. A regional variation in Hue is Bun Bo Hue, a supposedly spicy beef noodle soup. I’m not sure if this dish was simply dulled down for tourists when I tried, but I found it sadly lacking in spice.



Hot pot
I believe that hot pot is probably a Chinese invention, but it is one that has certainly become widespread in Vietnam. A “hot pot” of bubbling spicy broth is placed on the table into which you dunk a variety of meats, seafood, vegetables and noodles, plucking items out when cooked and enjoying the soup at the end. If you want a great hot pot in London, just ask our friend Pey Shan who introduced us to it last year!


Hot Pot

Street Food
Street BBQs provide the perfect opportunity to join the locals perching on tiny plastic stools mere inches off the ground, whilst sampling some freshly cooked street food. A plate of beef and vegetables are supplied for you to “barbecue” yourself. However, the term barbecue is used loosely as you are in fact frying the meat in oil on a small gas powered stove. However it’s cooked, the result is very tasty once you’ve braved the spitting oil, darting with your chopsticks to grasp a piece of beef and dabbing it in the seasoning of chinese five spice, salt, pepper, chilli and lime juice.


A street BBQ in Hanoi

Fish steamed in banana leaf
This is a fairly simple Vietnamese speciality of delicately seasoned fish encased in a banana leaf and steamed to perfection, presented as a delightful parcel to be unwrapped and shared at the dinner table.


Fish in steamed banana leaf

White Rose
This is a delicacy of Hoi An. The white rose, banh bao in Vietnamese, is a small steamed parcel of shrimp or crab meat a in manioc-flour wrapping to be dipped in a lemon and pepper sauce. A delicious little snack or starter!


White Rose

Spring rolls (nem)
Vietnamese spring rolls come in a number of varieties and are quite different from their Chinese counterpart. Chinese spring rolls are usually made with a wheat-flour casing and are predominantly deep fried, whereas Vietnamese nem are wrapped in rice paper and either eaten fresh, steamed or fried. Fresh spring rolls, sometimes called summer rolls, normally contain glass noodles, raw bean sprouts, and some refreshing green leaves including mint. They can also contain cooked meat such as pork or shrimps (sometimes less pleasantly still encased in their shells) and are wrapped in moistened rice paper. For cooked spring rolls the meat and veg can be rolled in dried rice paper and either eaten as is, steamed, or fried, providing a nice variety of textures and flavours. Another variant tried by Simon was the “roll your own” spring roll, with pork patties molded around lemon grass to be rolled up in rice paper stuffed with salad leaves, rice noodles, carrots and bean sprouts and enjoyed with a sweet and sour chilli sauce.


Spring Rolls


Pork on lemongrass skewers, with spring roll ingredients

Baguettes and pastries
The French colonised Vietnam between 1867-1954 and left behind a legacy of baguettes and pastries. You have no idea how wonderful it is to once again taste unsweetened bread!


Laura ate this and concluded 'Needs more chocolate!'

Rice wine
Rice wine isn’t really a wine, it’s a spirit of around 40% proof made from fermented rice, tasting a lot like rice flavoured vodka.

Coconut juice
Lop the top of a nice green coconut, stick in a straw and voila! You have coconut juice!

Vietnam certainly has some delightful dishes on offer but after the wealth of flavour found in India were sadly a little underwhelming. Whilst I found the food here lacking in spice the same could certainly not be said of garlic which abounds in almost every dish (perhaps this is the reason that Vietnamese cuisine did not endear itself to me)! Hopefully Laos and Cambodia will provoke more of a love for South East Asian cooking.


24 hours on the bus


View from my seat on the bus

I’m writing from an epic bus journey, 24 hours from Hanoi, Vietnam to Vientiane, Laos. Laura and I have just had a tasty picnic lunch of baguettes filled with ham and actual cheese with flavour. My taste buds are still tingling from the sensation! Accompanied by stunning mountain panoramas and the great music of Electrelane, it’s gone a long way to break up the monotony of a long road trip.

The bus we’re on is a modern sleeper, with three lines of bunk beds running down its length, some flat screen TVs playing Vietnamese dubbed Kung Fu movies, and a lot of sweaty passengers in the near-flat seats, and also on the isles between them. We’ve seen this trip dubbed ‘The bus journey from hell’ online, but in reality it’s been pretty good, after a slightly shaky start.

Our last day in Hanoi started with a quick visit to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and House. It’s a bit of a logistical struggle, and we’d failed to make it into the complex before going to Sa Pa. The complex is closed Mondays and Fridays, and of course on weekends. It’s also closed after 11am daily. And for all of September, October and November, when his body is sent for it’s annual re-embalming. It still being November, we were expecting to only see the house (which is apparently open afternoons, although how you actually get in since the complex is locked is another matter), but unexpectedly found ourselves in a line leading to the Mausoleum. I don’t think either of us had quite expected to round a corner, be shushed to silence by a guard, and find his body on display in the spotlights. This is probably the right time to say that as much as it was a surprise to us, it would also have come as a surprise to him, given his final wish was to be cremated, something not honoured by his successors. We also went round his ‘Stilt House’, a very modest two room dwelling where he was said to have lived, exemplifying himself as a man of the people with modest ways. This perspective does somewhat overlook a few facts though – for this place is still within the lavish grounds of the presidential palace, and Uncle Ho (as he’s endearingly known) also had another more conventially-sized house within the grounds – complete with a collection of cars. Strangely although on the tour, this isn’t the one featured on all the photos of his life though…


Ho Chi Minh's Stilt House

We were picked up from our hotel by a minibus to take us and apparently 25 other tourists to the bus depot. Considering the minibus could seat 19, and we all had luggage a plenty, it was a bit of a squeeze! The obvious jokes about us being on the minibus all the way to Laos weren’t that appreciated by those standing in the isle, and we were pleased when rolled up at the city bus depot. Although not quite so manic on this sleeper bus, it’s still a squash for taller folks, with some bunks apparently built for dwarfs incongruously the place they were forced to sit by the driver’s shouting assistant. There’s a guy off to our right whose seat is so small that with his legs straightened out he was nearly sitting on the head rest! Fortunately our bunks are fine, even if the aforementioned shouting assistant has gone to sleep on the bit of corridor between us and occasionally elbows us as he stretches in his sleep.


The border, Laos side

We’re now in Laos, having crossed the border when it first opened at 7am this morning. So narrow is the country that we’re already skirting its western border, and as I write this I can see over the river to our left to the trees in Thailand, where we’ll be setting foot sometime in the New Year. Our border crossing earlier was entertainment in its own right, with a jester amid the border guards on the Vietnamese side. They’d collected in all the foreign passports in
order to stamp us out (for a princely $1), and so had to return them. The guy called out each name, after which the corresponding person jumped to the front and did their best to look like their passport photo. Hats and sunglasses were removed, smiles were suppressed, and we tried to look as 2D as possible. It was more of a challenge for one girl who now had frizzy hair in contrast to her straight-haired photo; the guard even showed me her passport in jest as he refused to return it to her. Fortunately she had ID to vouch for herself, although at one moment it did seem he was going to seize that too! Laura and I managed to make it through unscathed – she actually looks quite like her photo, and it turns out that for me, the trick was to put on my best criminal pose, and then puff out my cheeks like a hamster – it would appear that I’ve lost weight since the snap was taken!


A traditional stilt house we drove past in Laos

All in all, we found Vietnam a little hard to get stuck into after India. Some of the places we went to were fascinating, and some of the things we saw and learnt heart-wrencing, particularly around the war. Unfortunately these moments of shock and awe were interspersed with a bitter taste from having both a taxi driver and a hostel try to con us in Hanoi. Perhaps we’ve also travelled too fast and not stopped long enough to let the qualities of the locals and their way of life really settle; our few days in Hoi An, in Ha Long Bay, and in Sa Pa were each enchanting in their own way – but not quite enough to make the whole.

So with less than a month to go until Christmas, we find ourselves on a sleeper bus to sleepy Laos, where we hope to find a different pace with a relatively untouched way of life. As the French put it, “The Vietnamese plant rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the Lao listen to it grow”. We’ll let you know what it sounds like next time!


Sadness and Sa Pa


Laura and I on the trail

Just before we were about to head to Sa Pa, I got the news that my Grandad, Reginald Phillips, had passed away. He was an active man for a ninety year old, having swum daily until recently, and his antics sometimes made us wonder if he was actually fifty years younger! He’s been following our travels from home, having travelled extensively in his life – during the war in the Merchant Navy, and then later on a couple of round-the-world cruises.

Hearing the sad news has made me think of the many stories he told us grandchildren of his visits to far-flung places: of changing ships in New Zealand to find his prior vessel sunk a week later; of sitting on the same bus his brother had done a week before on the other side of the world and being recognised and taken in by friends; and of the delights of walking in the Catskill Mountains in New York State on shore leave during the war. As we continue our own adventure, I’ll be thinking of him on his and the message of friendship he spread through his involvement with the YMCA and throughout the world.

Sa Pa is a hill station set in the mountains in Vietnam’s far north-west, near the border with China. It’s famed as the cultural crossing point of many of the indigenous minority peoples of the northern highlands, and the best way to get a taste of what life is like for those still living a very traditional existence.

For us, Sa Pa was also the cause of some trepidation, as our train was due into the nearby town of Lao Cai at six in the morning, and we’d been told to expect scammers on the one hour minibus journey up the mountain. It’s the same trick of overcharging we’ve heard elsewhere – either charging a ridiculous rate to the unsuspecting foreigner, or quoting a reasonable price and then on arrival revealing it to be US dollars and not Vietnamese Dong – hence inflating it by a factor of twenty. Armed with the right price for the journey (50,000 vnd), we were relieved to immediately find an honest driver and soon be on our way. I think it says something for expectations that after this apprehensive start, we fell in love with Sa Pa, and left sad not to have been here longer.


The rice paddies across the valley

The cool mountain air, calm streets and bright tribal costumes for me quickly brought back memories of time my friend Roland and I spent in Huaraz in Peru, trekking in the Andes. As a quick respite from the night’s journey, we settled in to breakfast at a brilliant place Laura honed in on – appropriately called Baguettes and Chocolate, and then struck out for the day.

Women from the local minority villages supplement their income by being guides for tourists, and we found our guide Mai through her friend Ying (http://hmongtour.wordpress.com). The different tribes are recognised by their colourful dress, with the Black Hmong wearing dark blue tunics embroidered in greens and red, black headbands and velvety socks around their ankles. The headgear differs greatly between the different minorities, with some
wearing stark bright red headpieces and others in shades of green. Although her family still lives in the valley, Mai’s life has recently taken a more westernised turn, as she fell in love with a trekker from Belgium and has just spent a couple of months in Brussels with her fiancĂ© – it sounded like it was quite a contrast to the life she’d led here! She’s hoping to get married next year and move away permanently, but for the time being is in Sa Pa and was being continually welcomed back by various friends we bumped into along the way.


Our hosts, Ying and Mai in their Black Hmong clothes

As we walked down into the valley beneath Sa Pa, we were treated with a vista immediately reminiscent of Nepal. Stretching into the far distance were the familiar etched contours of thousands of rice paddies, each a tiny glimmering reflection of the bright blue sky, surrounded by an edge of greeny-brown. Up close, the mirrored sky in the paddies is punctuated by barren rice stems, harvested a few months ago and now left to wither in the water, creating an eerie silhouette.

Between the paddies are a web of streams and small waterfalls feeding them. Shade is provided by towering thickets of giant bamboo, which in places have been felled and cut in half to redirect the water along makeshift aqueducts. These drinking water streams end up outside houses, providing a continually running water supply that we’ve also seen while trekking elsewhere. The houses themselves are simple constructions of woven bamboo with either a bamboo or corrigated iron roof, and an indoor cooking area over an open fire.


De-husking rice using water power

Mai showed us how the villages go about living off the land, pointing out the corn husks drying for seed next season, and the indigo plants they use to dye their clothes. Laura had a go at dyeing and for half a day her hands turned green making her look like the incredible hulk! They use hemp for their clothes – something which has never really taken off in the west due to the stigma from marijuana in spite of its relative strength over cotton. I was also intrigued to see how they’d made use of water power to de-husk their rice, with the flowing water periodically tipping a bamboo pole, lifting a stone which then dropped into a bowl to separate out the rice.


The view from our homestay window

At night we slept in a ‘homestay’, essentially a mattress on the floor of a building adjoining the family home. Best of all, this meant that as the darkness closed in outside, we were able to curl up around the communal fire and watch as food was prepared. It seemed our hosts were trying to compete with the scenery outside, as mountains of flavoursome goodness were crafted before us – which we then gleefully got to eat along with the family and the handful other westerners staying there. There was about three times too much food, which they then ate for breakfast the next day.


Dinner laid out for all to eat!

Our route out of the valley was a little speedier than our arrival; we each hopped on the back of a motorbike for an exhilarating journey back up to the town, a thrilling ride and certainly more fun than taking the bus!


Laura about to bike back to Sa Pa

As we’d been walking into one of the villages this morning, Mai had introduced us to some of her friends who were returning with empty baskets having delivered an offering to a house up the hillside. We could hear the chatter of a celebration as we approached, and she told us it was a wake to mark the anniversary of the death of a woman three years ago. The celebration made me think of my Grandad, and how he really fully lived his life, and how much he loved us grandchildren. As we later sped through the valley on our motorbikes, I thought of the many journeys he’s been on, and how he’d smile to hear of what we were up to now, sailing through beautiful hills in the sunshine – and living out our dreams. I hope he’s able to do the same where he is now.


Descending dragons and incredible islands


The obligatory Kazoo photo!

Ha Long means ‘descending dragon’ in Vietnamese. Gazing out across the green South China Sea* at the silhouettes of thousands of islands rising steeply from the water, its easy to think you could be in ancient land of dragons and fairytales.


View from the cave

Without a doubt, the bay is one of the most stunning natural vistas I’ve ever seen. We spent much of our time gawping at the soaring greenery-topped rocks from which nature has cut dark caves and yellow beach coves over millions of years. The vast majority of the 2000-odd islands truly meet the definition of tropical, uninhabited and oozing lush green vegetation out of every crack in their craggy slate-grey core. I think the most surprising thing is that they rise so steeply out of the water, like the grey fingers of some unseen giant’s hand beneath the surface. Interestingly, the shape of the islands isn’t caused by the waves – at water level, you can see where the cliffs have been eroded by the ebb and flow of the tide, causing only a small overhang of a few metres – not the sheer vertical sides that define them. These instead have been formed from the geology of the region which left a thick layer of limestone deposits of hard and soft rock. The soft stuff has since been eroded by the wet climate, leaving the harder bits to form islands.

Our junk, the Golden Star

We’d joined a tour from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay for three days and two nights to take in the scenery, staying the first night on our boat in a fantastic cabin, and the second in a hotel on Cat Ba Island, the nicest we’ve been to in the three months we’ve travelled. We spent quite a while reading reviews before settling on ODC Travel as our tour operator. This is not a place to scrimp on spending; with attitudes to safety not what they are back home, some of the boats are of questionable seaworthiness – earlier this year a tourist junk sank in the bay in calm seas, claiming the lives of 12 people on board. I’m sure you’ll be relieved to know our boat was impeccably well maintained and after taking the trip, we’d recommend it to anyone.


Our cabin on the boat

Our tour took in a cave, which was deep and impressive – although overrun by hundreds of other tourists also visiting it. It was one of the few times we’ve really experienced queueing here in Asia, with a tailback up the steps to the cave. We also had some adventure activities on the schedule, where we got to try our hands at kayaking, and, I guess, our legs at cycling.


We kayaked to the island sticking straight up just to the right of the centre

The diversity in activity was matched by a similar range in weather; overcast on the first day, rain on the second, and then finally a blast of sun as we headed home to the mainland at the end, giving us the chance for a quick swim in the sea off the back of the boat. Cycling between paddy fields in the midst of the downpour was certainly an experience, after which we were sufficiently damp that a second kayaking outing in the rain seemed like an obvious choice. The others in our group weren’t quite so sure, choosing to remain inside the warm and dry of the boat, but we were pleased with ourselves when we returned victorious from our voyage to an interesting looking outcrop in the distance – photo above.


The bay at Cat Ba Town

Our night on Cat Ba Island was a fun break from the water. I might be pushing things here, but it felt a bit like a tropical version of the Isle of Wight. Ok, so the Isle of Wight doesn’t have a UNESCO protected nature reserve (although The Needles are quite fun), but in season, it does have boatloads of tourists (fortunately we were out of season), and a small road network which slightly undermines the charm of the place. There’s also a big fishing industry here, the bay in front of Cat Ba Town full of identikit trawlers in a uniform of blue and red, which at night resemble more of an eighties disco as they all turn on their neon florescent lights with which they work by. The island also has a splash of sparkling white beaches, strung together by a lovely cliff path running round a peninsula. As you can see in the photo below, we were entertained to see the route ahead somewhat impassible where it once continued round to the third beach – after debating our rock climbing skills, we decided to give a miss.


The less well maintained walkway

The only sad thing about the trip was that the weather wasn’t better while we were there, as it wasn’t warm enough to spend the afternoon on the sand, and the spectacular sunrises and sunsets we’d been promised in the bay were hidden by cloud. However, invigorated by exercise, sea air and natural beauty, we feel all set to return to do battle with the clamour of Hanoi, taking a break from the sea again until we get to down to Cambodia in time for Christmas.


*Unsurprisingly, they don’t call it
that here!


The view from the cliff walkway