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.

Into The Past

Hoi An Lanterns

Hoi An seal

Hoi An is undoubtedly my favourite spot in Vietnam as of yet. Being a UNESCO world heritage site, it has been incredibly well preserved as a 15th to 19th century South-East Asian fishing port. Surrounded by old, traditional buildings and a simple way of life, you feel as if you’ve taken a step back in time.

Hoi An

Hoi An bikes

Japanese covered bridge, Hoi AN

Above, you can see the Japanese covered bridge, an example of the imprint left by the countries that used the town as a trading port in the 16th and 17th centuries. The most evident influence is from China and Japan but there are still undercurrents of the period of French administration such as the bakeries and baguettes/paté etc.

The atmosphere during the day time is incredibly relaxed and mellow – with large areas of the old town being only accessible by foot or bike. It seems apt, therefore, that the original translation of ‘Hoi An’ is “peaceful meeting place”. The town is also filled to the brim with tailors of all sorts of descriptions making this a fantastic place to be fitted out with a very reasonably priced new wardrobe (if you have the luxury of packing space and excess money!) Another local speciality is silk production; you can even stop in to one of the silk ‘houses’ to see the traditional process – worm to scarves:

Trays of adult silk worms. The yellow balls are the cocoons. Before the worm has a change to reap the benefits of it's hard work and metamorphose, the cocoons are sadly to be boiled and threaded.

Trays of adult silk worms. The yellow balls are the cocoons. Before the worm has a chance to reap the benefits of it’s hard work and metamorphose, the cocoons are sadly to be boiled and threaded. Rather tragically ironic, therefore, that they’re entirely dependent on humans for their reproduction and don’t occur naturally in the wild.

silk worms hoi an

If you’ve had enough of pottering about the magical streets, or bartering with tailors, then Cua Dai beach is also just a few km away and in my opinion is far preferable to the likes of Nha Trang: Fewer tourists, not built up, cleaner and bigger.

Cua Dai Beach Hoi An

Cua Dai Beach Hoi An

At night time, the town takes on a whole new lease of life. Colourful lanterns light up the streets – dotted along the bridges, buildings, shops and trees. The entire population seem to suddenly emerge from no where and new markets spring up selling locally crafted produce (notably, large collections of the lanterns). Women and children along the riverside sell candles in little paper boats for you to send down stream for good luck, traditionally on the full moon. It’s definitely a site not to be missed.

Hoi An Lanterns

Hoi An Lantern

Hoi An Lanterns

Hoi An Lanterns

Hoi An Lanterns

Octopus’s Garden

Nha Trang Coral Reef

“The ocean is a mighty harmonist.”
 – William Wordsworth

Despite being warned that the snorkelling here at Nha Trang wasn’t that great I decided to head out on a motorboat to check it out for myself.

I love the coral formation's resemblance to roses when the colour's removed.

Aquatic ‘rose garden’.

Nha Trang Coral Bed

Yes, ok – it’s no Maldives but you can still find incredibly beautiful arrays of vividly coloured coral beds. All the usual suspects are flashing about for you to admire: Parrot, trigger, butterfly and clown fish etc (despite their irritating talent for dodging the camera). There were also a variety of stunning live cowries – relishing, no doubt, the absence of any avid shell collectors.

Nha Trang Coral

Nha Trang blue starfish

Cornetfish

I enjoyed the presence of the slightly more unusual cornet and trumpet fish – two of the more ridiculous looking creatures on the planet –  with hilariously elongated ‘noses’ . I also love the way the Moorish idols (what a lot of people, including me, inaccurately call angel-fish) seem to leave little white scribbles behind them in the water as they dart about.

The trip out on the boat also provided the opportunity to find more natural, secluded spots than the bustle of the main beach. One of the stops was a tiny little island, complete with miniature Buddhist shrine. Another interesting sighting were little fishing villages built to entirely float on the water. Built largely out of corrugated iron, they weren’t particularly photogenic, but a novelty nevertheless.

An example of some of the houses precariously built onto the cliffside.

An example of some of the houses precariously built onto the cliffside.

Getting out of the town allowed me to see a more endearing side of the Nha Trang area. It was sorely needed. Particularly after being practically mugged by an old lady demanding money in the street in an incredibly violent way – grabbing my arm in a vice-like pincer grip and trying to pull my bag off my back! Not what you’d expect from an innocent looking ‘grandma’.

This is to satisfy any curiosity as to what the inside of a dragon fruit looks like. The inside's just as unexpected as the out.

This (served up on the boat) is to satisfy any curiosity as to what the inside of a dragon fruit looks like. The inside’s just as unexpected as the out.

The camera doesn't quite capture the incredible neon florescence of this coral. Love how the rock in the middle looks like an artist's used paint pallet though.

The camera doesn’t quite capture the incredible neon florescence of this coral. Love how the rock in the middle looks like an artist’s used paint pallet, though.

 

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Bells Ring

Nha Trang BeachI assumed that an overnight bus would simply constitute an ordinary bus that travels at all hours. I was amusingly surprised, therefore, to discover that these buses are set up more like a moving dorm room, with seats set up in bunk bed fashion that recline almost to horizontal level. Needless to say that it was still pretty difficult to get any sleep with all the noise and changes in motion, but at least they tried!

Nha Trang is yet another bustling city but with the significant addition of a large beach. As city beaches go, it’s pretty fantastic, but having not researched into the location I was a little disappointed; I’d been expecting a more isolated haven like some of the idyllic beaches I’ve been spoilt with on previous trips. I’m not such a big fan of resorts, skyscraper backdrops and sunbeds as far as the eye can see. However, this disappointment was purely self inflicted, without preconceptions Nha Trang would have been a lovely surprise. The water is the perfect temperature – warm yet refreshing – and incredibly clean considering that it’s on the banks of a growing city.

One thing to be wary of is the danger of being ripped off along the sea front – as is the case with the majority of seaside resorts! A small sandwich can cost up to $10. There are plenty of smaller, more genuine Vietnamese restaurants just a couple of blocks back towards the city. For lunch, for example, I tried out the classic local ‘pho’ (rice noodle soup) for just $1.50. Granted, the salad stuff on the side looks a little dodgy (and salads should probably be avoided anyway due to the unclean water) but the soup itself was fantastically full of spice and flavour.

The town itself doesn’t have quite as much to offer in comparison to places like Ho Chi Minh but there are still a few places worth checking out if you can drag yourself off the beach. Long Son Pagoda, established in 1963 to honour the monks and nuns who died demonstrating against the Diem government, is a beautifully serene temple amidst the surrounding city chaos. You quite possibly might expend your life in the elaborate dance through the motorbikes across the road trying to get there but if successful then you’re in for a treat!

Long Son Pagoda

152 steps from the temple take you up to the white Buddha sitting on a hill which gives you the only views possible over the city. It’s definitely worth getting here in the morning though as around eleven it was starting to pack out with tours of people.

On stopping to photograph a monk ringing the bell systematically half way up the steps I was invited to sit inside the large bell whilst it sounded, accompanied by his chants.

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Long Son Pagoda

Coconut Skins

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Here’s evidence of the, almost obligatory, wearing of the cone hat as we were paddled downstream…

ImageWe headed out yesterday morning in the direction of the ‘mighty’ Mekong Delta. As far as ‘tourist-traps’ go, this was fairly high up on the list, but was, nevertheless, an interesting experience. We hopped on a motorboat and went first to see some of the local ‘coconut candy’ production – using the flesh of coconuts to make cream and then a sort of toffee which is actually rather good. The rate at which the team of ladies were wrapping each sweet was extraordinary.ImageWe then were herded into a cart pulled by an impossibly small horse and taken through the village to eat at a restaurant. The menu was pretty eccentric, including the delights of crocodile, snake and turtle.

I bumped into some Australian guys the day before who’d been to the restaurant and ordered snake. The staff brought out a live snake and proceeded to cut its head off with a pair of blunt scissors and pour its blood into shot glasses to drink. The still beating heart was placed on the table for them to watch as it slowly came to a standstill. This is all deadly serious– I had the pleasure of watching the video recording they’d taken of the whole gory scene. Obviously I stayed well clear of that dodgy side of the menu.

Another local speciality which we tried was their honey tea into which they mix the local honey with bee pollen and the juice of little Asian mandarins. (Of course the whole aim of the exercise was that we were then expected to buy a bottle or leave awkwardly, as ever.)

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Honey/pollen tea!

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They were also selling these bottles of some sort of coconut-based spirit with whole snakes inside – some with scorpions in their mouths! Disgusting!

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To break up the two hour return to Ho Chi Minh City we stopped off at our first Vietnamese temple. Although, to be frank, the inordinate number of Buddhist temples scattered across these countries is resulting in them already becoming a little repetitive!

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It seems that in an ironic way, the Dalai Lama would agree:

“This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”
 – Dalai Lama

That being said, they aren’t exactly an eyesore.

 

Goodnight Saigon

Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, (previously Saigon) is a fantastically vivacious city. One thing you’ve really got to watch out for, however, is the traffic! Over 2 million motorbikes saturate the roads and pedestrian crossings appear to be a completely foreign concept. You basically have to walk out into the stream of bikes and walk steadily across whilst they swerve around you. You’re advised not to stop whilst you’re walking as it can confuse them. This is much harder than it would seem as basic survival instincts would encourage you not to carry on walking into the path of a fast moving vehicle!

The period of French administration has left a firm mark on the city. Beautiful French architecture is dotted about along with an abundance of bakeries!

Here's the inside of the city post office, designed and constructed by Gustav Eiffel. The building remained untouched during the later period of turmoil.

Here’s the inside of the city post office, designed and constructed by Gustav Eiffel. The building remained untouched during the later period of turmoil.

Saigon's very own 'Notre-Dame' cathedral.

Saigon’s very own ‘Notre-Dame’ cathedral.

Of the many interesting activities available, I’d recommend the Art museum; despite being rather poorly exhibited it boasts a really interesting and unique collection of Vietnamese art. It’s also got a note-worthy collection of Vietnamese propaganda posters from the war. After having whetted your appetite you can pop across the road to the buzzing ‘Ben Thanh’ market to have a look at some of the beautiful local artwork and other bits and bobs for sale.

Inside Ho Chi Minh Art Museum

Ben Thanh Market

Here's a lady using variously different naturally coloured egg shells on lacquer to decorate her vases. This technique was prominent in the Art gallery and produces some really striking effects.

Here’s a lady using variously different naturally coloured egg shells on lacquer to decorate her vases. This technique was prominent in the Art gallery and produces some really striking effects.

Egg shell art

Another endearing quality of the city is the food selection. I’m likely to be biased as I have a bit of a thing for Vietnamese food but the fresh spring rolls with nutty hoisin sauce are just to die for.

About an hour out of the city you can find the Cu Chi tunnels – an elaborate and extensive network of underground tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.

Cu Chi tunnels

These holes are no ‘Bag End’; they epitomised “nasty, dirty” and “wet… filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell”. It’s shocking just how small the tunnels are and how well the entrances can be concealed. Essentially, the analogy generally used is to rats tunnelling under the rice fields to avoid being caught. You pretty much have to be the size of a rat to navigate through them. It seems impossible to imagine how they were used for communication, supply routes, living quarters and shelter, at times for days on end!  Some of the tunnels have now been made wider and taller to accommodate tourists but it’s still an experience to avoid if you’re even remotely claustrophobic!

Cu Chi tunnels

Cu Chi tunnels

Cu Chi also has displays and demonstrations of the methods of the Viet Cong including some fairly gruesome traps and a chance to fire a variety of the different guns (ranging from an AK-47 to the M60 machine gun) in their firing range!

Cu Chi tunnels

Here's a lady making the traditional rice paper for spring rolls etc...

Here’s a lady making the traditional rice paper for spring rolls etc…

It was interesting to see the war from a different perspective – with the Viet Cong as the protagonists – after studying the Americans involvement in school. The man showing us around the site had actually fought with the Viet Cong himself and had bullet wounds in his arms and leg to boot!