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.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

ANZAC day reflections from abroad

As many of you who know me I am not a big fan of the ANZAC day tradition in Australia. I have always belived that it valorises mass murder in the service of empires or nationslist nation states.

I had almost forgotton it was ANZAC day until I logged into the SMH and read the article titled 'Everyone is just so proud'

Well, having travled throughout Vietnam for 3 weeks and seen the damage caused by our troops all I can say as an Australian citizen I am anything but proud of our counties role in the Vietnam war which devistated this country and its people for 10 years.

Here are just 2 examples.

Denuded mountains on the Hai Van Pass
image by sridgway

The photo above is of the mountain range between Hue and Danang on the Hai Van Pass, notice how there is little jungle coverage, well this is because agent orange contining toxic dioxins was sprayed over the thick jungle by American and Australian soldiers, reeking enormous ecological damage and untold harm to the local population.

Old Shells @ the My Son Ruins
image by sridgway

The photo above is of the Ancient 4th-10 century, world heritage listed My Son relics @ Hoian. Many of these were destroyed by American and Australian bombs during the war.

The people of Vietnam continue to live with the lgacy of our attempted occupaton and people walk down Sydney street with puffed up chests proud.

Reflecting on the Iraq war and our involvement again with american troops it demonstrated just how the ANZAC tradtion serves to justify our invovement in immoral and illegal foriegn occupations rather that act as a catalist to prevent it ever happening again.

Rice bowl

image: sridgway

We drove out to the ancient ruins of My Son today through hectares of golden rice. The harvest is on. Teams of harvesters worked plots in the fields, scything, stooking and threshing the grain by hand. Front courtyards were displays of colour as the rice, alongside chilis, maize and beans, was laid out to dry in the sunshine.

Globally soaring food prices aligned to international economic conditions are taking their toll even here in the world's 3rd largest rice exporter. Rising prices might be good news for farmers but consumers are suffering. A cafe owner told us today that the price of rice has doubled in recent months.

Rumours are of rice shortages but it appears that a far greater impact is rice hoarding. Vietnam and Thailand it seems have in fact had record rise crops in the past year.

According to U.S. Agriculture Dept. what's driving the price of rice so high are widespread worries about food inflation in many rice-growing nations. "In poorer nations, a large share of people's earnings is spent on food, and big price increases in other kinds of food are harming consumers," Childs says. So to protect their supplies of rice—a staple food in much of the world—several countries have imposed export bans or sharp limits. That has led to a sharp reduction of rice available for trade in the global market. In 2007, India and Vietnam, two of the world's biggest rice exporters, reduced their rice shipments. Since then, Cambodia, Egypt, and Brazil have all halted rice exports. (Business Week)

The outlook appears grim, especially for nations that are net importers of the grain and that have large rice-consuming populations, like the Philippines.

Meanwhile here in Vietnam where labourers earn 50,000 VND (~ $3) a day there were government announcements via jeep mounted loud hailers today informing the locals of subsidies and strategies to stop the price rises. It was an interesting but necessary medium in a country where the hardest hit are unlikely to access the news in any other format.

image: robynejay

Saturday, April 26, 2008

In my dreams...





OK I am now officially all over Vietnamese beds.

Every inch of me aches. I'm a chiropractors dream come true.

image: alimander

Friday, April 25, 2008

Moving on

In 1968 I was 9 years old and living a comfortable life in rural NSW pretty much oblivious to the international situation.

image: robynejay

Here in Hue it was the scene of the Tet Offensive. With US forces focused elsewhere, for 3 1/2 weeks the National Liberation Front flag flew from the Flag Tower and Hue's 'uncooperative elements' were shot, clubbed to death or buried alive. It's estimated that 2500 of the town's merchants, monks, priests, intellectuals and government workers were killed.

With the South Vietnamese army unable to dislodge the Viet Cong and Nth V, the US army was called in. Huge areas of the city were levelled and in total around 10,000 killed.

It was a little surreal to walk a city with so recent a violent past. We gave Dong to a guy minus his legs, and passed hawkers selling military paraphenalia.

In the Imperial Enclosure tourist dollars are rebuilding and restoring the 1803 structures. French, US and Australian visitors are welcomed with smiles and grace.

Why not?

When you are traveling in another country, especially where you are out of your cultural comfort zone there is always that feeling of alertness that accompanies you. Am I being scammed? Rich western tourists can pay twice the local fee and naturally are a target of theft etc. In a country where you are economically privileged with respect to the vast majority you are very visible and constantly being hailed ¨buy from me"

So last night for the first time I let my hair down and relaxed a little, we went to a bar and had a few too many beers and cocktails with young backpackers. The place is called the why not? bar and yes I had a few too many and was busy playing pool.

When I got up in the morning I realised my money bag was missing, off course one fears the worst and so cancelled my cards and asked the hotel to ring the bar to see if anyone had handed it in.

When we returned from our daily travels the Hotel desk in formed me that they had my bag @ the bar. Seems I had left it on the counter after I had paid the bill and the manager had taken it home for safe keeping. Nothing was missing!! I doubt this would happen in Australia frankly, itś testament to the honesty and integrity of the locals, what a great county.

BTW itś a great bar and rocks in the evening, the manager plays requests from youtube from behind the counter. Check it out if you are here..

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Hue Haven

After a 3:30am start and flight to Hue the constant sprooking as we wandered the streets was getting pretty tedious. "Buy from me!" was replaced by "One hour!" as cyclo and scooter owners advertised their services every 3 m in a town best explored by foot.

So it was a welcome relief to stumble upon the XQ embroidery centre; a serene spiritual haven amidst the madness. We sipped a complimentary cup of green ginger tea, wandered from building to building through beautiful gardens and watched women embroidering the most exquisite works of art following designs by a team of artists, silk on silk. Perhaps the most spectacular were the double sided silk screens of flowers and tigers.

XQ embroidery centre - double sided work - Hue 6

Check out some more pics we took here.

It's the little gems like this that will be treasured memories.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Harlong Bay & Cat Ba Island

Junk on Ha Long Bay
image by sridgway

We spent the night oboard a Junk on the waters of Halong Bay. A welcome respite from the scooter madness of Hanoi. There are 2000 or so limestone islands densly scattered throughout the bay. Many little more than rocky outcrops but there are larger islands like Cat Ba a very beautiful and tranquil space out on the water.

Ha Long Bay residents
image by sridgway

Some of the islands have caves, one of which we stopped over to have a look through.
We may have been spared the scooters but not the hawkers, with women in little boats selling their wares to those on the junks. These people have lived in this area for thousands of years living on rafts in small family groups. They have schools for their children but little more than basic litereacy. The women row from junk to junk selling their wares, often with their children onbord. It struck me that it is us who are invading their space with the endless junks with their hords of gorking tourists and disiel motors distubing the stillness of the night. It will be interesting to see how they fare over the next 10 years.

We spent our second day on Cat Ba Island, one of the larger islands on the bay. Has been populated for 100s of years by rural villagers who farm and fish for a living. Apparently it has a population of around 11, 000 now with development expanding at an exponential rate as many Hanoi residents have discovereed it as a summer holiday destination and foreign tourists look for an escape from the city.

We treked up a 250 m mountain through thick bush and slippery slopes to finally reach the top where we could get a good view of the sourounds. I climed the look out tower an rusty structure with a piece corragated iron roof flapping in the wind. Definieny not for the faint hearted.

Here is a video from the top

video by sridgway

I was great to get out of the city for a while and see some of the wonderful countyside.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Buy from Meeeeeeeeeee

Come to Asia and you expect to haggle and be hassled by street hawkers. Don´t like it, don´t come.
But you never really know the local specialties.

Yep, we got got by the pineapple woman of Hanoi who chats and playfully puts her load on your shoulder and hat on your head, and then quite aggressively wants payment. ¨How much did she get YOU for?¨ some fellow Oz travelers asked. Mmm well - it was a pretty expensive pineapple.

image: sridgway

Up in Sapa the Black H´mong are skilled traders. The women arrive from their village in the early morning by bike and walk the streets armed with pretty much identical gear for sale - average quality shoulder bags, earrings etc. The young girls are very astute and have excellent memories and English. After two days we were hearing ¨Robyn!¨ called out from across the street.

¨Buy from ME!¨ is the accompanying tune. If you do, youŕe in for it.... ¨You buy from her!¨ ¨Buy from me!¨ How many shoulder bags can one tourist own : )
Of particular interest are the newbies to town who unknowingly pull a wallet from their bag or stop to look. Eagle eyes are watching and are waiting to converge!

The trick? Keep your sense of humour, be prepared to support the local economy, but be astute.

Network Coverage

sapa mobile  tower
image of mobile tower in Sapa: robynejay

When I left Australia I enabled global roaming on my Vodafone account thinking that I would largely get coverage in the large cities such as Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi but not much in the rural areas.

To my surprise quite the contrary has been the case, we have had 100% mobile coverage wherever we have been, even in mountains regions such as Sapa and Bac Ha or coastal islands like Halong Bay. Most of the coverage has been via Vinafone, although while in Lao Cai I did briefly connect to China mobile, well the Chinese corder was 3 km away :>

Amazing really, compared to OZ we are like a 3rd world country when it comes to network coverage, 100 kms out of Sydney you are lucky to get a signal at all.

The same goes for internet access, everywhere we go we have been able to access free wifi, Hotels, Cafeś, restaurants etc. all tout free wifi for customers. Itś been great and I am so pleased we purchased the eee pc itś been fantastic for editing images, uploading to flickr and posting to the travel blog and google map.

Australia has a lot to learn about countries such as Vietnam in terms of providing ubiquitous access for it citizens.

Popular art

Propaganda art is a central aspect of Vietnamese life. Street posters send messages - political, health focused, cultural.

A few days ago we came across a great exhibition of propaganda art from the war years. Aparently the posters were produced by both professional artists and amateurs and used on the streets. Many naturally espouse the anti-US, and communist causes but a strong message was also one of unification, freedom and peace.

Despite being a fantastic snapshot of that period of Vietnamese history the young woman who answered our queries about the display said that they received many complaints from visiting Americans demanding that the images be removed.

image: nutbird

Seeing Orange

image: mrfink
Between 1962 and 1971 in Vietnam hundreds of millions of gallons of defoliants/herbicides with high levels of dioxin were dropped by the US. It is estimated that three million Vietnamese were exposed and at least one million suffer serious health problems today.

Some are war veterans, who were exposed to the chemical clouds. Many are farmers who lived off land that was sprayed. Others are a second and third generation, affected by their parents' exposure. Today the Red Cross estimates that around 150,000 children with birth defects can be readily traced back to their parents' exposure to Agent Orange during the war, or the consumption of dioxin-contaminated food and water since 1975.

Despite US Veterans receiving compensation for exposure, on March 10, 2005 Judge Jack Weinstein of Brooklyn Federal Court dismissed the lawsuit filed by the Vietnamese Victims of Agent Orange against the chemical companies that produced the defoliants/herbicides that they knew were tainted with high level of dioxin on the basis that the use of these chemicals during the war, although they were toxic, did not in his opinion fit the definition of 'chemical warfare' and therefore did not violate international law.

As long ago as 1973 Peace Accords which paved the way to end the Vietnam War, included promises by the US of reparations of US$3.5 billion. So far, not a cent has been paid.

No shame...

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Centuries long learning

doctral seals, Temple of literature, Hanoi
Doctoral Seals date back to the 14 cent.

We visited the Temple of Literature (Van Mieu), dedicated to Confucius.

Amazingly this was founded in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong in 1076, and was Vietnam's first university established here to educate Vietnam's administrative and warriors class.

It was quite sobering to wander around the grounds of this august institution and think that Europeans were in the early part of the dark ages when they were issuing doctoral seals to students. The stones have the names of the students who were issued there doctoral seals. The first was around 1400 or so.

Interestingly many of the stones have one name line erased, I can´t help wonder why, was it some kind of historical revisionism by a some who wished to remove a credited family name.

Who knows, I asked a guide who said it was mostly likely a error corrected by the university, I think not ... Still it was a very tranquil place and I sat for a period and contemplated the learning that must have taken place here over the centuries.

Keep it clean

Despite the intensity of human existence here and the minimal infrastructure the cities are remarkably clean and vermin free. Personal spaces are kept meticulously clean with rubbish collected in neat piles in the gutter. Street cleaners gather the rubbish by walking the streets with wheelie bins.

In Saigon recycling was taken very seriously - a livelihood for some. We were staggered by the loads of carefully sorted styrofoam, cardboard, plastics etc that recycling women on bikes carted around.

rubbish collectors
image: robynejay

Unfortunately the ´gather it in the gutter´ process doesn´t work on water. Halong Bay is suffering from the sludge and debris from junks and the tourist trade gathering in huge drifts on the current, and unfortunately ending on the shores of the islands where local women collect shellfish. With increasing traffic, keepers of the World Heritage listed area are going to have to address the issue or this superb area will suffer.

Sung Sot Cave stopover Halong Bay
image: robynejay

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Roses to die for

How much would we pay for long stemmed roses in Australia? A few dollars a stem maybe?

The flowers of Hanoi in May are lilies and roses - simply gorgeous.

They're sold by women with bikes ladened with colour and perfume, and for a song....

flower seller
image: robynejay

Matchbox dwellings

A common building style is what I'm fondly labeling the matchbox dwelling.

They're around 4m wide, 20m deep and typically 3-4 stories high of rendered brick. The street level is usually also commercial space often decorated with gorgeous floor tiles. The middle floors have a narrow balcony with curved ornate railings and sometimes plants etc. The top floor is a sometimes a deck.

hanoi architecture
image: robynejay

The front of the building gets painted in gorgeous colours - green, blue, purple - but the sides are usually left unpainted and are windowless.

The result is a rather strange looking piece of architecture when sitting alone, desperately in need of a neighbour or two. We saw these even out in the rural areas adjoining paddy fields.

typical building
image: robynejay

Not sure I'd like to be in one during an earth quake!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Gems on Van Mieu

En route to the Temple of Literature today we came across two little gems on Pho Van Mieu which are well worth a visit if youŕe heading this way.

First @ number 43 was Craft Link, a not-for-profit organisation that sells ethnic weaving and craft at fair trade prices, and apparently also funds community development activities for the artists. The collection wasn´t huge but the quality good and prices very reasonable, and it was such a relief to browse freely without avid sellers breathing down our necks. My treasured purchase was a gorgeous red silk Khmer weaving ($20).

Just a few doors down @ 59 we stopped for lunch and a fantastic cappuccino at KOTO (Know One, Teach One), a vocational training hospitality school for disadvantaged kids here in Hanoi. There are clearly strong links to the program from Oz and it appears that its a potential destination for Australian Volunteers Abroad. Theyŕe clearly doing really well, now making a profit and expanding to other countries. Food, service, setting and prices were all superb! Our VET system in Australia could learn a thing or two....

Cracked pepper sir?

crickets and ..

image: robynejay

GPS on the go

We have for some time liked the My Maps feature on Google maps so we decided to create one as a compliment to our travel blog.

The problem with Vietnam is that while the satellite images are ok, the definition of the street maps are very poor. To position our travel points we have had to us GPS coordinates to position the locations on the satellite image. Here is how we are doing it.

When we comes to a locations we would like to have registered on our google map I use a HP PDA which has a GPS receiver to capture the latitude and longitude. We then take a picture or video for use on the Google map with our regular digital cameras.


The PDA records the GPS in degrees, minutes, seconds eg. Latitude 21 deg 02 min 09 sec Longitude 105 deg 51 min 09 sec. For Google maps the format used is in decimal format so we use an online converter. There are numerous converters online however we have settled on this one from the FCC in America.

For example the the above points convert to Latitude 21.035833 Longitude 105.851667
One we have decimal valules these can be entered into the Google map search using the following format 21.035833, 105.851667

The result can be saved to our travel map, edited to have a title, description and image or video included.

While the PDA works well it does not have the best reception and is a tad slow to respond. So I am keeping my eye out for a cheap gps tool.

The final result

View Larger Map

Friday, April 11, 2008

Flickr video

No doubt those of you who are flickr users would have noticed that they recently added video support, upto 90 sec and 150 meg. per post, perfect for our travel blogging.
This was taken on my Canon Ixus 950 IS and uploaded directly to flickr, and then embedded from there in this post. Worked a treat. This video was just under 150 Mbyte.
Expect to see moe of these in our posts

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Simple pleasures

Today we escaped from the midday heat, and awaited the re-opening of the History Museum, by having lunch in a little cafe in the Botanic Gardens. We dined on grilled beef, a cold can of beer followed by a cornetto icecream for the grand total of 90,000 VND or around $7 for two of us.

Around us locals were engaged in the latest soapie episode. We couldn't understand a word but the accompanying music was universal and the C class acting entertaining.

Beside us a swag of sparrows fluffed around on the dusty ground, digging holes to wallow in, no doubt escaping the heat like us and ridding their feathers of mites.

Simple pleasures. Long memories.

Out of our comfort zone

What I really love about overseas travel, especially to places like Vietnam, is that it challenges the very assumptions we live by - the 'the normality' of our lives.

Some people are born and live their entire lives in small rural Australian townsm and that is their world - THE world. Or if they travel they lock themselves away in the Sheraton venturing out on a tour bus perhaps.

Travel and walk the streets and the way we live, dress, work, eat, interact, speak are questioned.... as they should be.

Hustle & Bustle of Ho Chi Minh

Open street market

image by sridgway

Spent our first day exploring the frenetic streets of Hi Chi Minh city. I have never seen so many scooters in my life! I guess what struck me most was just how industrious the people are, there is some one selling something on every street corner. Great city, a feeling of energy and vitality everywhere. Went to the Ben Thanh markets, very full on, huge array of magnificent foods and clothes on sale, although I found it hard as I am too polite and stop speak to each hawkers who spook me .. bad idea.
Off to explore some more ...

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

When pesto isn't pesto

There's something pretty scary about heading overseas using Jetstar. My experiences haven't been great with many delays and cancellations. But it's cheap and went totally smoothly... we even arrived early!

My 'snack pack' for the flight - olives, pesto, cheese and salami - would have been even better however if the pesto had made it through security. A container of shop sealed pesto is a threat - be warned - but it's not liquid I said! You are now only allowed 100ml per conyainer in hand luggage so perhaps we could have eaten some there and then?

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City at 7:30pm and got to the hotel without drama only to find that our pre-arranged hotel was full (a common problem i gather) so were quickly escorted around the block to another for night one.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Nuoc mam

Only 7 sleeps to go until we head off and I'm browsing the web for a better understanding of our destination.

Did you know that the island of
Phu Quoc produces something like 10 million litres of fish sauce annually! The anchovies are mixed with salt at the rate 7:3 in huge 10-ton barrels. That's a lot of anchovies!!

Over on Asia Food I found this yummy looking Garlic, Chilli and Fish Sauce (Nuoc Cham)...

2 ripe red chillies
1 clove garlic
1 teaspoon sugar
1 lemon
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 tablespoon water
4 tablespoons fish sauce

Cut off stalks from chillies, split down the centre and remove seeds and centre membrane. Cut into pieces, and pound using a mortar and pestle* together with peeled garlic. Add sugar. Peel lemon, removing all the white pith. Slice and remove seeds. Add a small piece at a time to the chillies and pound to a pulp. Stir in the vinegar, water and fish sauce. Serve in a small bowl and use in small quantities.