Outro

Lotus Flowers

“Summer ends, and Autumn comes, and he who would have it otherwise would have high tide always and a full moon every night.”
 – Hal Borland

The time has finally come for my summer to draw to a close. Bangkok has whizzed past in a blur of alcohol and cheap massages.

I’m not viewing my homecoming as the end, per say, more like a new start in a different place. To be perfectly honest I’d been looking forward to escaping the omnipotent smell of fish sauce.

Khao San Road - great spot for a big of haggling over typical backpacker goodies: baggy clothes, jewellery, pirated dvds etc etc

Khao San Road – great spot for a big of haggling over typical backpacker goodies: baggy clothes, jewellery, pirated dvds etc etc

Don't be alarmed - it's not me. Sandra, my mexican room mate, decided on a slightly clichéed visit to one of the multiple Bangkok tattoo parlours.

Don’t be alarmed – it’s not me. Sandra, my Mexican room mate, decided on a, slightly clichéd, visit to one of the multiple Bangkok tattoo parlours.

 

As has come to be a habit when visiting new cities, I took a trip to the National Art Gallery. It was in pretty bad condition; It appeared of going through some sort of construction work, with most of the building empty. However there was an inspiring little exhibition in an odd set-up outside of the main building. I was rather taken with a duo of intricate and lively collages by a man called Sittichoke Wichian entitled ‘Living Ways, Bonds and Happiness’. Here’s one of the two:
Bangkok National art gallery

Below is another piece which caught my eye as it reflected the craftsmanship that’s typical throughout South East Asia – silk weaving. It depicts a series of poses of a shrouded nun, through gaps in the indigo silk work.

Bangkok national art gallery

I’ve also tried to make the most of the fantastic street food in the last few days. My staple diet of curry, pad thai, Mango sticky rice and tofu stir fry extended into breakfast. Here’s my eight a.m tofu green curry!

I have to admit though, birds eye chillies in a green curry first thing in the morning are not so easy on the stomach.

I have to admit though, birds eye chillies in a green curry first thing in the morning are not so easy on the stomach.

I’m still not entirely won over by Bangkok, being a little put off by the overly aggressive approach of some of the vendors and the slight sketchy feeling you get from certain places at night time. However, I can’t deny that it’s a fun place to visit. It’s particularly great at the end of a trip as you can stock up on souvenir’s and $10 full body massages before heading back to reality. In my case, the return was a lavish three day journey, the highlight being the night spent on the stone floor of Mumbai airport.

Needless to say, it’s good to be home. It was a bit of a shock to the system to descend into the freezing grey ‘mizzle’ but as Steinbeck wisely puts it in his ‘Travels with Charley‘ “What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.” I’m heading out on a whole new adventure in a few short days as I move up to London to finally re-start university. This is by no means the end – more like a respite from excessing moving about the place  – with any luck there will be many more summers to come so WATCH THIS SPACE!

I really want to thank-you all for being such a huge support to me throughout this adventure – I really do appreciate it more than I can say. I’ll leave you with a quote from the brilliant Albert Camus as I attempt to descend once again into the charted waters of the bitter cold. Let’s hope the unpleasant days of the 2011 winter, the last one that I was around to experience, are behind me.

“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

~Albert Camus

Khao San Road by day

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Buddhist gathering, chang mai

There’s a huge array of tourist-orientated excursions and activities available in Chang Mai. One of the nicer things to do, in my personal opinion, is to simply wander about the city checking out a couple of the Wats or popping in for a three dollar massage in one of the numerous establishments. Today I indulged in an hour long traditional Thai massage. It was quite bizarre: a little like some sort of eccentric physiotherapy session with the masseuse wrapping herself around me to twist my limbs into the strangest contortions. At times it was verging on being quite unbearable in terms of the intense pressure levels – she would dig in her elbows into your muscle with her full body weight, bringing me to the brink of what I like to call ‘hysterical pain laughter’.

The night bazaar is also definitely worth a visit. It’s basically an extensive network of vendor stalls interwoven with street food, live music, bikes selling delicious coconut ice-cream, the odd boxing ring, delicious smoothies etc. Be prepared to bargain hard, though. Most of the prices originally quoted to me were brought down by at least two thirds!

This morning I headed out with a couple of the girls to take on my second cooking course, this time in Thai cuisine. We started off with a shop in the local farmer’s market where the lady conducting the class explained some of the crucial ingredients to us.

small aubergine/ eggplant

This is actually a kind of aubergine on a bed of holy basil. You can see where the american ‘eggplant’ came from as it’s actually about the size and shape of an egg.

We each made four dishes of our choice, but as we chose different options it allowed us to see how to make quite a large number of meals! Here are the recipes with rough measurements for one portion size. Like with the Vietnamese recipes, I’m not sure if they’ll be of any practical use to anyone but I hope they might be vaguely interesting, if nothing else!

Pad Thai

Ingredients:

50g Narrow rice noodles
(50g sliced chicken/prawns– small strips) – Substitute with extra tofu for vegetarians.
20g tofu, sliced into small pieces
10g Chinese chives or spring onion cut into 3cm lengths
30g bean sprouts
1 tsp chopped garlic
1 egg
2 tbsp cooking oil
1 ½ tbsp oyster sauce (For Veggies: mushroom sauce)
½ tbsp fish sauce (Veg: soy sauce)
1 tsp sugar
¼ cup water

You can also add 1 tbsp tamarind sauce/ some red dried shrimp to get the authentic Thai feel, although these ingredients aren’t so easy to get your hands on! Birds eye chillies can be added to taste.

Pad Thai ingredients

1. Fry tofu in the oil until lightly golden. Add garlic. If adding chicken/prawns, put them in shortly after the garlic and fry until cooked through.
2. Push the tofu, garlic and meat over to one side of the pan/wok and break in an egg. Scramble slightly then mix in as it whitens.

Cooking pad thai
3. Lower the heat a little. Add the water, sauces and sugar followed by the noodles and stir until the noodles have gone tender (can cut with the spatula/spoon)
4. Add the bean sprouts and chives and stir in for around a minute.

Cooking Pad Thai
5. Serve with peanuts, fresh lime and chilli powder!

Pad Thai

Tom Kha Kai (Chicken/Tofu in coconut milk soup)

50g boneless chicken breast/ Tofu, sliced around 3cm thick
1 lemon grass cut into 3-4 1 inch pieces
3-4 1 inch pieces of thinly sliced galangal (Thai ginger – can use ordinary ginger)
2 kaffir lime leaves torn in half
1-3 fresh birds eye chillies, crushed
Half a large onion, quartered
Half a medium sized tomato cut into quarters
A large oyster mushroom torn into pieces
½ tbsp sliced coriander
1 ½ tsp sugar
1 ½ tbsp lemon/lime juice
1 tbsp fish or soy sauce
1 ½ cup coconut milk

Coconut soup ingredients

1. Boil coconut milk in a pot. Add lemon grass, ginger, kaffir lime leaves and chillies.
2. Add the chicken/tofu oyster mushrooms and large onion and wait until cooked.

Cooking coconut chicken or tofu soup
3. Add tomatoes and the seasoning/sauces
4. Serve with coriander sprinkled on top.

Coconut and Tom Yam soup
Tom Yam soup (on the left) is actually very similar to this but with stock water in place of coconut milk. Also straw mushrooms can be used instead of the oysters. The same process applies. If using prawns in place of chicken/tofu add these later with the tomatoes.

Here's a lighter, vegetarian alternative with chinese cabbage, carrot and soft tofu.

Here’s a lighter, vegetarian alternative with Chinese cabbage, carrot and soft tofu.

Green Curry paste
7 fresh birds eye green chillies
2tbsp chopped garlic
1 tbsp chopped shallots
1 tbsp chopped lemon grass
½ tsp chopped galangal/ginger
1 tsp chopped coriander root
½ tsp chopped kaffir lime peel
1tsp turmeric
½ tsp roasted peppercorns
2 tsp roasted coriander seeds
1 tsp roasted cumin seeds
½ tsp salt
½ tsp shrimp paste
All ground together in a mortar – peppercorns and seeds are best to do first.

Alternatively you could just by pre-made paste to speed up the process. Having it fresh though really does make the difference!

Green Curry (Kaenf khiaw-waan kai)

50g boneless chicken breasts or tofu thick sliced
30g of egg sized variety of the aubergine – not sure how easy they’ll be to find. Cut into wedges
30g baby sweet corn (or carrot), sliced.
2 kaffir lime leaves – torn
6 sweet basil leaves
1 tbsp green curry paste
1 ½ cup coconut milk
1 ½ tbsp oil
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp fish or soy sauce

1. Put oil in a pan, on low heat add green curry paste (rub into the oil with the back of your spoon/spatula)– bring to simmer. Add half the coconut milk and stir in well.
2. Add chicken/tofu and stir until cooked

Green Curry
3. Add remaining coconut milk, aubergine, sweet corn/carrot and kaffir lime leaves.
4. Season with the sugar and sauce
5. Sprinkle sweet basil leaves then turn off the heat. Serve with steamed rice.
(Simply substitute a red curry paste for the green for a red curry)

Other items on the cooking menu include the likes of spring rolls, Phanaeng curry and sticky rice pudding with mango (absolute heaven). Unfortunately I feel adding in all the recipes learnt today would be a bit of an overload so I’ve tried to rein it in a little.

Spring rolls

Thai spring rolls

Phanaeng curry ingredients

The basic phanaeng curry ingredients, including mini aubergines!

cooking phanaeng curry

Cooking phanaeng curry.

Following the class, I ventured out to the old town district in the centre of the city, surrounded by the remains of a city wall and moat. By lucky coincidence my visit overlapped with some sort of Buddhist ‘mass’ or prayer session in one of the central temples. It began with a slow stream of monks trickling in and kneeling in neat lines along the floor. In the blink of an eye the entire temple was filled.

Temple in old town chang mai

Monks in Chang Mai

White Shadows

White Hibiscus

“I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”
― Robert Louis Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes

My ability to sympathise with this attitude is currently limited. The actual act of travelling from one place to the next is the evil you have to suffer in order to arrive at your destinations. Well that’s how I’m feeling at this current moment in time, anyway: The last three days have been occupied entirely by such ‘movement’. In fact, I think it’s been the longest total amount of time I’ve ever spent in assorted methods of transport over such a short space of time.

The first two days were occupied entirely by 10+ hours a day on an aptly named slow-boat up the Mekong river from the fantastic Luang Prabang. A lack of A/C and comfortable seats was not entirely welcome. The conditions were exacerbated by the motor breaking down and a conversion to a rickety tuk-tuk. This was an experience not unlike sitting on a bucking bronco whilst simultaneously showering in the reverse setting of a hoover. The sweaty, wooden snail-boat suddenly seemed like five star luxury.  A brief night was spent in the unimposing border town of Xuang Hai, followed by a further day’s journey into Thailand in a, far preferable, minibus.

Yes, the views were pretty stunning, but there's a limit to how much you can appreciate them after 20 hours of the same scene.

Yes, the views were pretty stunning, but there’s a limit to how much you can appreciate them after 20 hours of the same scene.

Sunset from the back of a Laotian tuk-tuk.

Sunset from the back of a Laotian tuk-tuk.

Today’s journey was a substantial improvement as we were able to stop off at sights en route to our final destination of Chiang Mai.

The 'Golden Triangle'. From this point in Thailand you can see the border into Myanmar on the left of the river and into Laos on the right. Historically infamous for use in the opium trade.

The ‘Golden Triangle’. From this point in Thailand you can see the border into Myanmar on the left of the river and into Laos on the right. Historically infamous for use in the opium trade.

The Golden Buddha, shining out as a welcoming beacon to the two other immediately adjacent countries.

The Golden Buddha, shining out as a welcoming beacon to the two other immediately adjacent countries.

The second and most impressive of our slight detours was ‘Wat Rong Khun’ in Chiang Rai, more commonly known to foreigners as the ‘White Temple’. Designed by Chalermchai Kositpipat, the temple is unique in that it’s entirely (you guessed it) white, with mirrored glass mosaics over the structure emphasising this brilliance, which alludes to the purity of the Lord Buddha. It’s very contemporary, being built only in 1997. I’m surprised that it’s not received with more controversy due to the quite shocking nature of some of the sculpture: skulls and skeleton forms woven into the mesh of walls and an area, near the entrance, of arms reaching from the ground – perhaps representing tormented souls in purgatory.

Inside the temple is a wax-work monk that took me a good half hour to dismiss as not being a real person. There’s also a bizarre collection of modern day heroes and film characters painted onto the walls. Very strange indeed.

White temple Chiang Rai

White temple Chiang Rai

White temple Chiang Rai

White temple Chiang Rai

Surrounding the 'White temple' are, as usual, other smaller Wats and shrines. Here's a the rather beautiful base of a wishing well. Don't be fooled by the clarity, this is actually underwater.

Surrounding the ‘White temple’ are, as usual, other smaller Wats and shrines. Here’s a the rather beautiful base of a wishing well. Don’t be fooled by the clarity, this is actually underwater.

White temple Chang Rai

White temple Chang Rai

White temple Chang Rai

As ever, it’s impossible to recount the entirety of the past few days (my posts are already increasing in length by the day) So I’ll skip over the cashew nut factory and my miserable new head-cold and will leave Chiang Mai for next time.

Having said that, who knew that cashew nuts grew on trees underneath cashew ‘apples’?!

Cashew nuts

 

Below My Feet

Elephant Ride - Luang Prabang

“I think the thing to do is to enjoy the ride while you’re on it.”

 – Johnny Depp

Today has served to consolidate the idea previously budding in my mind: Laos is my favourite destination from my selection that I’ve passed through on this trip through South East Asia. The beauty of the countryside is simply outstanding and the people here, in my opinion and from my experiences, are incredibly accommodating and generous.

A few of us were up before the sun this morning. We headed into the beautiful UNESCO sight of Luang Prabang town to watch the ‘giving of the alms’. This daily procession consists of the saffron-clad Buddhist monks of the local monasteries walking in their groups around the town to collect food offerings from the town’s people: the only meal they will eat all day.  It was a charming and humbling experience. Particularly touching was noticing the monks reverse the process in giving some of the food they’d received to the elderly beggars.

Giving of the alms Luang Prabang

Giving of the alms Luang Prabang

The next excursion I had my doubts about: an elephant trek with the ‘Mahout Eco Camp’.  My expectation of poorly treated animals and masses of tourists, however, was completely turned on its head. The elephants seemed at the height of health and very well loved. They’re left to roam free through the jungle throughout the day – only being called into the camp in the early morning for the rides. I asked if I could sit on the Elephants neck as opposed to a seat and was rewarded with having an elephant (called Tong Kun) all to myself! It was just me and four friends, on two other elephants – not the vast crowds I’d been dreading. I was taught by the trainer of Tong Kun how to instruct her, with ‘pai’ meaning ‘go’, for example, and then left to it! She was surprisingly obedient and, of course, utterly adorable.

Elephant Ride - Luang Prabang

Elephant Ride - Luang Prabang

Elephant Ride - Luang Prabang

 

 

 

Elephant Ride - Luang Prabang

Elephant Ride - Luang Prabang

 

 

With only one day in this beautiful town, we had no time to lose. Next stop: Kuang Si waterfalls. Despite the slight increase in the crowds, these ascending tiers of soft, milky turquoise water are not to be missed. There are also numerous areas where you can head in for a swim – lots of jumping off the waterfall opportunities to be had! The site also is home to a ‘sanctuary’ for Asiatic black bears and sun bears, rescued from highly inhumane conditions such as minuscule cages or forced ‘bear dancing’.  They’re now set up in the equivalent to a zoo-like habitation which, although still not ideal, is unarguably far preferable to their previous situations.

Kuang Si Waterfall

Kuang Si Waterfall

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Kuang Si Waterfall

We stopped at a little village on the way back into town. Naturally, we were bombarded by the local salemen...in this case, children.

We stopped at a little village on the way back into town. Naturally, we were bombarded by the local salesmen…in this case, children.

 

The final exertion for the day was climbing up the steps to the tallest peak in the town: Phu Si temple. Undoubtedly the best place to view the sunset over the Mekong River. Other delights not to be missed in this enchanting little town include the friendly and vibrant night market, full of irresistible locally crafted goods. Down a side branch of the market you can find the equivalent of a food quart, where a vegetarian all-you-can-eat Laotian buffet costs as little as a dollar. The smoothies/shakes available at stalls throughout the streets are also to die for. The perfect way to end a fantastic day.

Sunset Luang Prabang

Food at Luang Prabang night market

N.B. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LnKUD_OztRE

(This would have been my preferred song for the post but it just seemed a little too obvious!)

The Importance Of Being Idle

Vang Vieng Rice Paddy, Laos

“It is important from time to time to slow down, to go away by yourself, and simply be.”
 – Eileen Caddy

I’ve become so infuriated by organised group activities and general ‘tourism’ that today I decided to break away from the gang. We arrived into Vang Vieng in the monsoon rains last night, so this morning I indulged in a lie in, which was absolutely glorious. Eventually emerging at around eleven, I donned my hiking boots for the first time since leaving home and strode out in a general ‘countryside’ direction.

Vang Vieng, being essentially a backpacker haven, is mostly known for tubing and kayaking tours. I don’t find either option remotely appealing, largely due to the fact that I’ve done both a number of times with far more freedom and with far fewer crowds. One particularly fond memory is of heading out across the French vineyards near Carcassonne, one summer, fully equipped with all of the inflatables from the pool. We floated down the river on assorted lilos and rubber rings, occasionally getting caught on the odd bit of shallow water, having a hilariously good time. In comparison, heading out with three tour guides, full instructions, routes mapped, proper equipment etc seems somewhat less spontaneous.

Exploring the local area, however, was incredibly rewarding. The general landscape out of town is absolutely breath-taking. Limestone ‘karsts’ are dotted about the place, very much like Ha Long Bay but with vividly green rice paddies replacing the ocean. You can wander out on the magical little paths through the paddies, with precarious bamboo bridges and rivers that you have to jump across (almost inevitably resulting in mud splattering all the way up your legs). Mesmerising arrays of butterflies and dragonflies are chasing and courting each other all around you and the soothing noise of the running water pouring out of bamboo structures creates the epitome of tranquillity.

Vang Vieng Rice Paddy, Laos

One of the more lacklustre of the bunch...

One of the more lacklustre of the bunch…

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Vang Vieng, Laos

After ambling down a dirt road for a while I decided to follow a very poorly translated signpost which pointed towards a cave “where you bath”. This took me down a tiny little path winding through banana plantations and lush wilderness which was actually a little disconcerting as there wasn’t a soul in sight and the tight turns resulted in very poor visibility. What’s more, the screeches of the crickets were quite alarming; they were exactly like that horrible sound you make when you scrape cutlery across an empty plate. Round one tight corner I spotted an incredibly bizarre snake – around a metre and a half long but so thin that it can’t have been more than a centimetre or two wide. It reared up, with some little creature in its mouth that was screaming its heart out, and darted quickly into the jungle. I’m not sure what it was exactly, but having looked online the closest I’ve come is a ‘painted bronzeback’. By this stage, my stomach was obstinately reminding me that it was lunchtime, so I decided to give up on the rather unnerving trail and head back to the open space!

A small herd of cattle, blocking the route back to the road - thankfully they were very docile!

A small herd of cattle, blocking the route back to the road – thankfully they were very docile!

Calf seeking shelter from the heat.

Calf seeking shelter from the heat.

Vang Vieng , Laos

Rambling about the place was such a fantastic opportunity to get a sneak peek into the genuine lives of the locals: families gathered in the dark of their bamboo huts around a pot of steamed rice, farmers tending the cattle and paddies, little kids splashing about in the mud whilst the fishermen work their traditional nets in the rivers, young boys proudly sporting their smart uniforms as they cycled to and from school. One boy, perched up on a tiny little branch at the top of a tree, like a sparrow, shouting out ‘sa bai dee’ (hello), jumped down and ran over to me to offer his half eaten guava, which was rather adorable. Such a shame that I was unable to communicate in any way – hello and thank-you are the extent of my Laos linguistic abilities, unsurprisingly!

Bridge across the fast-moving river.

Bridge across the fast-moving river.

Vang Vieng River

Laos fisherman

Vang Vieng road

 

Boy in tree Vang Vieng

I’m getting to grips with the local street food increasingly as time passes – the basic concept initially was just entirely foreign to me and nobody explained it, so it’s taken a while! You get the basic ‘canvas’ of the meal given to you, most often rice noodle soup, and then you’re able to choose all the flavours and seasoning yourself from the things available to you on the table – what I initially mistook for a salad is pot of fresh herbs: here it’s mint and a strange lemony tasting leaf that looks a little like basil. Then there are sauces – in this case an additional delicious thick peanut/chilli sauce, chillis, garlic, curry powder etc

The basic 'noodle soup' has morphed into varying forms in the different countries.  Here in Vang Vieng it came with a sort of dark gelatinous tofu, a side of fresh bean sprouts and topped with fried garlic.

The basic ‘noodle soup’ has morphed into varying forms in the different countries. Here in Vang Vieng it came with a sort of dark gelatinous tofu, a side of fresh bean sprouts and topped with fried garlic.

Rice Paddies, Vang Vieng, Laos

 

Going On

Frangipani flower, Laos

Dok Champa a.k.a. the frangipani – national flower of Laos & symbol of joy and sincerity.

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
 – Walt Disney

Yesterday we bade farewell to Vietnam and set off on a short flight South West to Vientiane – Capital of Laos. The difference between the two countries is not immediately distinguishable, expect perhaps that the number of motorbikes on the streets has suddenly decreased dramatically! Another slight difference is that the prices are marginally higher here, probably due to the fact that the country’s land-locked. The French influence is still prominent; Vientiane even has it’s own ‘arc de triomphe’!

Vientiane's 'arc de triomphe'

We headed out to the ‘Buddha Park’ this morning: a sculpture park crammed full of 200 Buddhist and Hindu statues. Although the park was only started in 1958 the statues create the illusion of being centuries old, giving the park a mysterious and almost chilling atmosphere!

Buddha Park, Vientiane

Buddha Park, Vientiane

water lily

Buddha Park, Vientiane

Buddha Park, Vientiane

One particularly unusual sculpture, in the form of a giant pumpkin, allows you to go inside into a kind of labyrinth with three levels representing hell, earth and heaven. You enter through the mouth of a three metre tall demon head and climb up from hell to heaven, with smaller sculptures inside the maze on each level.

Buddha Park, Vientiane

The view from 'heaven'.

The view from ‘heaven’.

Vientiane also brings back memories of Yangon due to the ‘Stupas’ throughout the city which strongly resemble the Myanmar Pagodas. Pha That Luang Stupa is generally viewed as the most important national monument in Laos.

Temple at Pha That Luang Stupa.

Temple at Pha That Luang Stupa.

I've always had a soft spot for interesting translations!

I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for poor translations…

 

In terms of food, I haven't notice too much of a difference from Vietnam yet, rice and noodles obviously being the staples throughout Indochina. One thing that is apparent here that was absent beforehand is sticky rice. Here are some bizarre sticky rice 'lollypops' dipped in egg yolk and cooked on a bbq!

In terms of food, I haven’t notice too much of a difference from Vietnam yet, rice and noodles obviously being the staples throughout Indochina. One thing that is apparent here that was absent beforehand is sticky rice. Here are some bizarre sticky rice ‘lollypops’ dipped in egg yolk and cooked on a bbq!

 

 

Even On A Rainy Day

Ha Long Bay

“Some people feel the rain. Others just get wet.
 – Bob Marley

Unrelenting rain was making me increasingly frustrated as we headed straight from the overnight bus onto yet another bus, taking us on a three hour journey to UNESCO world heritage site: Ha Long Bay.

Ha Long Bay

Again I found myself hit by the problem of high expectations. Having heard from many sources about the incredible natural beauty of the site to the extent that I’d accumulated an almost unrealistic ideal, it was inevitable that I’d be slightly disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, it was undeniably a stunning location, but it fell short in a couple of ways: it was on a much larger scale than I’d imagined, with many of the iconic views being little dots in the distance (I imagine that the best way to see it is by air – where all of the postcard photos come from!) Secondly it was, again, slightly spoilt by the large number of tourists in assorted tour boats. It probably didn’t help that the weather was abysmal and I was running on just a couple of hours sleep! However, kayaking in the monsoon rains was actually quite a hilarious experience.

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We were firstly taken out to a limestone cave, which I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about. Yes, the stalagmites and stalactites were spectacular but the natural beauty of the cave had been distorted with multi coloured lights etc and the tourists were packed in like sardines.

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The kayaking was undoubtedly the highlight. Setting off from a floating village painted in vivid colours (no doubt for the benefit of the tourists) we finally had a little freedom to explore the beautiful limestone ‘karsts’/islands. There were little tunnels in the rock which opened up into enormous open-air caves. Luckily I’d brought my water-tight bag for the camera as we got so soaked by the rain that we might as well have fallen into the water!

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Ha Long Bay Kayaking

Ha Long Bay

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Today is Vietnam’s ‘National Day’ on which they celebrate gaining their independence from France. In Hanoi this has not been of any particular significance other than increasing the crowds by about 300%. It was of much greater significance to a certain portion of the population, however, as, slightly alarmingly, 15000 odd Hanoi prisoners have today been granted clemency: http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Hanoi-frees-thousands-on-Independence-Day-but-no-political-prisoners-28881.html (perhaps this could explain the increase in the crowds!)  There are also Vietnamese and communist flags hung around the city for the occasion. Visiting Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum was entirely pointless as the date also coincides with his death, so the queue was around three hours long: Not a portion of the day that I’d be happy to part with to see the embalmed body of old ‘Uncle Ho’, no offence intended.

Instead a couple of us headed out to the Fine Art Museum which was defiantly more than worthy of its dollar entrance fee. A short motorbike ride later, we arrived at Hoan Kiem Lake which was celebrating the occasion through an array of what, to me, looked like brightly coloured Harry potter-esque dementors. The park set out around the perimeter of the lake was beautiful, though, and led us to stumble upon the water-puppet theatre.

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The Buddhist art section of the museum

Shrine at 'One Pillar Pagoda' in the Ho Chi Minh complex.

Shrine at ‘One Pillar Pagoda’ in the Ho Chi Minh complex.

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Independence day balloons over Hoan Kiem Lake

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If crossing the road was difficult before, it’s now become a case of pure chance whether you’ll make it across alive. The only option is just to stride out into this and walk steadily across so they can dodge around you – they don’t even remotely slow down. It is completely terrifying.

The water-puppet show basically consisted of puppeteers standing waist-deep in water behind a screen putting on a display of different dances through the puppets on the surface of the water. It was certainly different. The live Vietnamese music was beautiful and the reflections/the way the light caught on the water were also spectacular.

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Sugar and Spice

‘Hue’ seems like another fairly standard example of what I’ve come to expect of a Vietnamese city – alive and buzzing, with roads that you have to be virtually suicidal to cross. Pam and I walked out along the river to the Thien Mu pagoda, supposedly the biggest one in Vietnam. After a near on two hour walk along a busy road, we were not too sure it was worth it. Perhaps this is just in comparison to the jaw-dropping pagodas of Yangon. By happy coincidence we arrived just in time for the sunset, though, which improved the situation a little. Exhausted and hungry in the dark we were then treated with a nice dose of sods law: In every city you get constantly hounded, as a foreigner, by moto-taxi owners asking “you wan’ motorbike?” The one time we actually wanted a bloody ride there were none to be seen.  We walked nearly half the way back before we were able to barter a lift. It was pretty fun, though – particularly adrenaline spiking as the helmet, being three times to big, was about as much use as a swimming cap. The traffic was absurd, as usual, although somehow it doesn’t seem so intimidating when you’re part of it (despite the fact that I’ve already witnessed two crashes already). They drive hilariously close to each other on the roads to the extent that you’re practically rubbing thighs with the person on the bike next to you! I’m surprised that they’re not constantly clipping each other…perhaps they are!

Hue Sunset

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This morning I arranged a cooking class with a restaurant down the road called ‘Kangaroo Hue’ (not quite sure of the relevance of the Kangaroo, but never mind). Most of the dishes which we made were adapted from the original to be made vegetarian, me being the only ‘student’. I’ll include the meat/shrimp versions as well though, for the sake of everyone else. They’re not particularly specific as a large amount of the cooking relied on what ‘looked right’ or was to personal taste so forgive the vagueness. In terms of quantities these are all made out for roughly one portion (of lots of little bits in some cases)– perhaps two.

We started off with making the local steamed rice cakes (Hue Beo):

  • rice flour,
  • tapioca flour,
  • water,
  • spring onion,
  • shallot,
  • vegetable oil,
  • tofu or shrimp

Put 5 tbsp of rice flour in a bowl with ½ tbsp tapioca flour then around 3 tbsp hot water. Mix a little then add another rough 10 tbsp of cold water and stir well until all is a smooth liquid. Preferably leave for around 20-30 mins.

Steamed Rice Cakes stage 1

Chop a small shallot v. finely and fry in quite a lot of vegetable oil until yellow – add a little salt – pour onion and oil mix into small bowl and add a few finely chopped spring onions.

Boil the tofu then cut very finely and grind into a sort of powder which you then fry briefly until brown (alternatively boil the shrimps for around 5 mins then remove the shells and again grind into a sort of powder)

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Put a little of the oil from the shallots into little clay bowls in a steamer pan (Can use a spring onion as a brush!) leave them in the steam pot for around a minute before pouring in the flour mixture so that the little bowls are each around half full. Steam for around 3 mins then the cakes should have puffed out and be totally white (will sink down pretty instantly)

Pre-steaming prepared bowls.

Pre-steaming prepared bowls.

Put in a little of the onion mix then top with the powdered tofu or shrimp.

 Serve with a fish sauce – 5 tbsp fish/soy sauce, 2 tbsp sugar, 4 tbsp water.

Hue fried pancake:

  • Rice flour
  • Shrimp/pork or tofu
  • Egg (just the yolk)
  • Bean sprouts, carrot (cut relativey finely)
  • Straw mushrooms
  • Stock powder, sugar, vegetable oil

Put 2 1/2 tbsp rice flour in bowl with 1 egg yolk, 1 tbsp stock powder, ½ tbsp sugar, 2 tbsp water – stir well until liquid.

Fry the tofu/shrimp/pork for around 3 mins

Put plenty of oil in a deepish frying pan and wait until relly hot then pour in mixture so covers entire pan up to the edges and fry for around a minute (submerged in oil)

Put the bean sprouts, carrot, mushroom and tofu/pork/shrimp on one side of the pancake then fold over the free side. Carefully flip over– when crispy take it out and drain off excess oil.

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Serve with salad of bean sprouts, lettuce, mint, v finely chopped cabbage and peanut sauce

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Peanut Sauce:

  • Fried peanuts,
  • Fried sesame seeds
  • Peanut butter
  • Stock powder
  • Fish/soy sauce
  • Sugar
  • Oil
  • Onion/shallot
  • Garlic

Grind the peanuts and sesames to a powder
Chop the shallot/garlic very finely and fry in oil – once yellow add a tbsp or less of peanut butter, 1 tbsp stock, 2 tbsp sugar, 1 tbsp fish sauce and half small bowl of water
Cook for around 5 minutes until thicker consistency

 

Royal fresh spring roll (nem cuon tuoi):

 

  • Rice paper
  • Cabbage, carrot, big ear mushrooms, glass noodles
  • Onion/shallot, spring onion, garlic
  • Egg
  • Stock powder, sugar, pepper

 

Soak glass noodles in water for 10 mins. Cut all the filling as finely as possible and add 1 tbsp stock, 1 pepper, ½ sugar and mix well.
Cook oil until hot then add all the filling and fry for around 10 mins with some water added.

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When done move into bowl.
Wet rice paper (using fingers or brush) on both sides – mustn’t get too wet! Put on plate and add a little filling to one side
Fold in the sides on either side of the filling then roll it along the length of the paper to make a sealed roll.

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Serve with fish sauce:
1tbsp sugar, 1 rice vinegar, 2 fish sauce, 1 water – cook for about 2 mins – chop fresh chilli and garlic and mix in.

 

Tofu noodle soup :

 

Boil water with lemon grass, 2 tbsp chilli powder, a few cloves, 2 tbsp stock powder, 2 fish sauce, ½ sugar, chilli. Add tofu, tomato, potato (pre boiled),carrot, cabbage, pak choi and onion.

 

Serve with rice noodles and sprinkle of chopped spring onion and pepper.

 

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They use a surprisingly large amount of sugar and oil! I guess for healthier options get rid of the sugar/only use as much oil  as needed to fry not the inch or so used locally!

Anyway those were a bit haphazard – not sure if anyone will be able to get any real use out of them, but they may give you a bit of an idea about what and how people cook here in Hue.

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I also found it interesting how they use large ‘cooking’ chopsticks instead of our usual wooden spoons etc.

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Pretty In Pink

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“If you feel lost, disappointed, hesitant, or weak, return to yourself, to who you are, here and now and when you get there, you will discover yourself, like a lotus flower in full bloom, even in a muddy pond, beautiful and strong.”
― Masaru Emoto, ‘The Secret Life of Water’

As Hoi An’s relatively small it’s very easy to get out into the sprawling rice paddies of the countryside. Today we hired out a couple of bikes in town and headed out for our first proper taste of South East Asian rural life.

The alternation between vast fields of rice, fish ponds and water gardens was entirely novel to me. I was immediately drawn to the murky ponds of the lotus ‘farms’ so stopped to investigate. ‘Nelumbo nucifera’ (lotus flower) is Vietnam’s national flower and has an extraordinarily long list of uses, being pretty much entirely edible in various different ways; The unusual Vietnamese lotus tea is made using scent from the stamens, for example. The man wading about in the field came over to introduce himself and seemed more than happy to pose for photographs and even made a gift of some of the flowers he was picking!

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In fact the country folk in general were extremely accommodating and friendly. We came across a vegetable and herb farm and were invited to ‘help out’ a little – I’m sure being more of a burden than any real form of assistance.

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An extremely uncomfortable traditional way of watering the lines of crop, in this case lemon grass. I didn’t really get the hang of it – the plank of wood kept slipping off my back!

The most exciting surprise though was still to come. After stopping to photograph the water buffalo wallowing in the mud or wandering about the fields, a friendly old man offered to give a short ride on his buffalo through the paddies. It was hilarious – strangely bald and slippery to the touch and it kept whipping me with its wet and muddy tail!

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Below you can see a man herding about his flock of ducklings with a large stick. This brought about conflicting emotions, as however adorable it is seeing an entire fleet of baby ducks they are all inevitably soon for the slaughter – an idea that doesn’t particularly sit well with a vegetarian. This is however, an existence far preferable to sitting in a corrugated iron shed though, surely.

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Overall, saying that the exploration proved to be fruitful would be an understatement. If you’re planning a trip to any of the main cities In Vietnam, you definitely need to take the time to get out into the countryside – Hoi An would be a great place to start!

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To Buddhists, the lotus symbolises purity of the body, speech, and mind detached from the muddy waters of desire.