Monday, May 5, 2008

Calling all tour operators

Tourism in Vietnam is really still in its infancy; that was the appeal. But while we nodded and were very grateful to our Vietnamese tour guides we generally found that some good info via Lonely Planet, and our own 'steam' was the most satisfying.

In general the guides we had, really had quite limited English and knowledge of the location beyond the basics. There were also some pretty serious duty of care issues we encountered; funny at the time but potentially dangerous.

On Halong Bay a couple of Thai tourists off our junk drifted (thankfully in life jackets) across the other side of the bay, and caught by the tide did not have the strength to swim back. The tour guide had no idea they were still in the water and no-one was watching out for them. They ended up being rescued by one of the 'water-women'.

video: sridgway

On Cat Ba island, we were poorly warned or prepared about the conditions of the trek path to the top of Ngu Lam. It was very steep and very slippery. The guide led the way and one woman soon fell way behind. Steph fell back to assist her, and at the peak I triggered concern when they didn't arrive after a time. They had taken the wrong path but thankfully eventually retraced their steps. What would have happened without Steph's goodwill or if she had decided to turn back, I fear to ponder.

image: trekking up Ngu Lam peak from sridgway

Another issue we encountered was the use of Vietnamese guides into Minority Group villages. The young girls selling goods in Sapa for example, spoke excellent English, and in hindsight we should have abandoned the tour and employed one of them to trek around their own area with us.

There's a great support opportunity there for some Australian volunteers!

In search of a REAL cappuccino

image: sridgway

Off the plane first thing on my list of must have/do's was a REAL cappuccino.

Vietnamese coffee has quite a unique flavour. Typically it's drunk black and very strong, often sweetened with condensed milk, sometimes drunk over ice. It's not bad, and has a kind of nutty, chocolatey taste.

A few places sell 'western style' coffee (at inflated prices) but order a cappuccino at your peril! We had one in Hue that was half filled with something cold and frothy that most definitely was NOT milk.

The answer? When in Rome......
... or drink beer - it's great and very cheap ;)

image: robynejay

Oh, and my other must have/do's?
- a glass of cold water out of a tap
- a toilet seat that wasn't wet
- olives and salami and cheese
- a tender lamb roast
- luxuriating in a comfortable bed with crisp cotton sheets

.... and that was all on the first day back!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

eee pc

Robyn on the eee pc
Robyn using the eee p on free wifi @ the DMZ cafe, Hue
image by sridgway

Itś our last day of our month in Vietnam. I thought I would take this opportunity to reflect on the eee pc for those considering purchasing one for a OS sojourn.

I purchased the eee pc pretty much sight unseen for the trip just before we left. Add to that I am a newbie to linux so it was a an experiment all round.

After both Robyn and I have been using it for a month, blogging, editing images and uploading to flickr on largely free wifi networks I thought it would be a good to reflect on it' s strengths & weaknesses.

Overall it has been invaluable especially in Vietnam with such good wifi access and speed. Itś size and weight has meant I have been able to cart it around during the day and hook up to skype and check email for lunch or over a beer or 2.

As a traveler without a computer you mostly have to rely on the hotel computers which are often in high demand and poorly resourced. Most of the Hotels we stayed in were 2 star and the wifi signal was available in the room which meat we could do our work in the comfort of our room. The best was the Viet Anh in Hanoi which had a wifi router on every floor. For avid flickr users we wanted to edit & upload the days pictures at the end of the day. Most hotel computers had windows xp which does not have any image editing software installed. Robyn tried a few online ones to no avail. The eee pc has mtPaint 3.11 pre innstalled and proved more than adequate for the job of resizing, rotating and cropping for flickr.

The only 3 star hotel we stayed in had the worst internet access of all, and the wifi was wep and would not work. It had a swimming pool, which Robyn made the most of :> The higher the star rating the lower the network connectivity.

The downside, well when I got here it would not recognize any of our usb memory sticks, it was working fine before we left so a mystery as to why it fell off. Had to spend an hour looking @ geeky forums to fix it, but I got it working again in the end. Once you get away from the pre installed software things get geeky :<

I tried to install picas but would not work.

Other than this it has been a fantastic work horse, battery life about 2 hours with wifi on.

I would recommend it to anyone contemplating an OS trip.


It's our last day and we're doing our bit to support the local economy. Well, that's my excuse anyway ;)

Our bag (mmm bags...) are overflowing with china, marble, silk, lacquerware, woodwork etc. Each item is assessed for size and weight. Jetstar's baggage limits are pushed to the limit.

In 14 hours we'll be home; hard to believe. It's been a wonderful trip and a great, well-needed break.

From here on we'll post a few last reflections, summaries, and hints and tips.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Culinary delights

A meal without vegetables is
a funeral without a horn
(Vietnamese saying)

The food in Vietnam has been absolutely fantastic. For around $3-$5 you can get a main course with meat; spring rolls are about $2. Vegies are purchased fresh from the market and rarely refrigerated before eating. Beef, chicken, duck, pork are the main meat fare.

You might like to try out the Red Bridge Fresh Spring Rolls for yourself...

Soak a cup of white rice overnight. Wash 3 times and drain.
Mix 1 cup of the rice with 2 cups fresh water and a pinch of salt.
Blend together for 7 mins and allow to sit for one hour.
3/4 fill a large pot/saucepan with water and cover top with white cotton (lawn), securing it with elastic. Cut a vent at one side around 2cm x 4 cm to allow steam to escape.
Bring water to boil.
Using a soup ladle pour a spoonful onto the lawn and gently spread the batter to form a circle.
Cover with a lid and steam for 1 min.
Using a flat bamboo stick, slide under the centre and lift the paper from the lawn.
Flip over onto a board/plate (sticky side up). Separate with lettuce or bamboo leaf
(these keep a few hours or can be dried in the sun)

100g peeled shrimps (prawns or other meat, or tofu)
2 pinches salt and sugar
10 medium lettuce leaves (asian)
1/2 cup grated carrot
1/2 cup grated green papaya (or green mango, bean sprouts, cucumber etc)
2 tsp white vinegar
1 tblsp finely chopped white onion
1 tsp vegetable oil
chopped fresh herbs - vietnamese basil, mint, coriander

WOK MIX - Pour vegetable oil into wokon medium heat; add onions and fry 30 secs. Add shrimp and one pinch of salt and sugar. Cook 1 minute more.
SALAD MIX - Mix remaining ingredients in a bowl (vegies, vingar, salt and sugar)

Place some vegetable and herb mix onto a sheet of rice paper.
Then place some wok mix on top.
Roll up tucking in edges as you go.
Slice into segments and serve with sauce of your choice.

Red Bridge cooking school - fresh spring rools

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Red Bridge Cooking

A highlight of our trip and an absolute MUST if you are visiting Hoi An, is the half day Red Bridge Cooking School.

At $20/head its not cheap by Vietnamese standards but worth every cent.

We attended a morning class that began at 8am with a REAL cappucino (see future post on coffee) at Hai Cafe in town. The cafe is run by an Oz expat, the food is superb (we went back at night for a meal), there a few reasonably priced Australian wines on menu, and it supports the World Wildlife Fund's efforts locally.

With an English speaking guide we wandered through the local market, learning a bit about local produce before boarding a boat for a 30 min trip down river to the Red Bridge Restaurant.

The head chef led us through a number of dishes, first demonstrating and then letting us at it. It was a lot of fun and not as tricky as expected. We even learned how to make our own rice paper for fresh spring rolls.

image: robynejay

The class was followed by lunch (and a bottle of SA white at our expense) by the river- a chance to see and taste the dishes at their finest - before boating back to Hoi An.

Red Bridge Cooking School- asian eggplant in clay pot

Monday, April 28, 2008

Swarms of magic

image: dbz885
Where ever we walk near greenery we are accompanied by a magical array of gorgeous butterflies.

Clustering to feed from midges among the ruins or swarming to drink by creeks, they have been quite noticeable, and often large and colourful.

image: audrey sel

But it may be only the tourists who are in awe.
According to BBC News, in 2000 a scheme in Vietnam to pay villagers to destroy crop-eating butterfly larvae hit problems when they killed 3.5 million grubs in three days.

Officials at Xuan Loc village in northern Phu Tho province had offered 1,000 dong (about 7c) for every 50 dead caterpillars. But in three nights the villagers killed so many of the grubs that officials were unable to pay them.

The incentive certainly works - a similar programme in September 1999 resulted in the death of 1.25 million mice at one cent a time.