Quintessential Vietnam: Ninh Binh Province

Close your eyes.  Imagine Vietnnam. No, not the images of bombs exploding over rural villages.  Open your eyes and close them again. Picture vibrant green rice paddies, farmers in conical straw hats, bent over tending their rice with wooden tools.  Picture water buffaloes refreshing themselves in a muddy winding river, with karst limestone mounts rising straight up from the flat fields, and towering over the pastoral scene.   This is the Vietnam of coffee table books.  This is the Vietnam of the Ninh Binh province, and truly one of the most stunningly beatiful natural landscapes I’ve ever stood within.   […]

Cooking with my family in Vietnam

We arrived at the little organic farm that housed the open air bamboo cooking school laden down with all of our stuff.  A big backpack and day pack each, plus a rugged little rolling suitcase.  They looked at us as though we were insanity itself, but were polite enough not to say anything.  We were headed out of town on a bus later that day, and didn’t see any point in backtracking to our hotel after our class.  As we unloaded our things they eventually got the courage to ask “why did you bring your luggage?” It was clear they […]

Central Vietnam: Hue

Hue is a popular spot in the tourist guidebooks. They’ve all been here. Frommers, TripAdvisor, and of course Lonely Planet. How do I know? Every restaurant and guest house in town has their @mentions printed on a sign out front. That’s all well and good, especially if Hue delivered the goods. But in my mind, it just didn’t. Tourists have been coming here for a long time, and the local hawkers are skilled at drawing you in, monopolising your attention, and conning you into paying way too much for whatever it is they’re selling. Motorbike ride, taxi, pedalo, sunglasses, silk […]

Vietnam: Hoi An and An Bang

Hoi An was one of the “bucket list” stops on our travels through Vietnam. A busy trading port until the 19th century when the river silted up, the old town is a colourful warren of wooden trading houses whose designs were heavily influenced by the Chinese and Japanese merchants that set up shop here for centuries. Hoi An is a UNESCO heritage site for good reason. Brightly coloured lanterns are strung across every narrow lane, connecting saffron coloured buildings accented with the deep patina of centuries old teak wood. The ceilings in the old merchant houses are supported by enormous […]

Vietnam’s Central Highlands: Da Lat

Da Lat is a gorgeous highland town in central Vietnam, with a distinctly European feel. The climate stays a steady 23*C (74*F) year round, and gorgeous pink bougainvillea spill out over French Colonial buildings that stretch up onto the hills overlooking a tranquil town lake. In short, it’s utopia. It began life as a spa town for the French who wanted to escape the heat of Saigon, and quickly became popular with the Vietnamese as well. Adored across the country, it was pretty much spared from destruction during the civil war in an unspoken agreement between the North and South […]

A new way to travel: the Vietnam sleeper bus

And now, for an entirely new way to travel. We boarded the “sleeper bus” at 8:40 am for our seven hour trip to Da Lat in the central highlands of Vietnam. After the intensity of Saigon, I was desperate for somewhere less masochistic, and so we escaped to the mountains. Shortly out of town, we crossed the mighty Mekong river as it widened into its famous delta that has made this land fertile and productive for millennia. The river starts somewhere in Tibet, and crosses through six countries to end up here, in the East Vietnam sea (also known to […]

Ho Chi Minh City: Confronting the War

History is like a multi-faceted gemstone that reflects and refracts the light brilliantly from the many directions in which it faces. All too often, we are taught the story that shines the brightest from the direction we’re looking, and forget that from the other side, the view is dull and dark. We have a tendency to admire its brilliance from our own side, ignoring the other sides to the same story. But turn the gem a just a little and it shines again. This was never more apparent to me than in Saigon or as it’s now called, Ho Chi […]

Saigon: the city with two names

You sense it the moment you arrive in this city with two names. Ho Chi Minh City pulsates, its arteries flowing with the choreographed chaos of its streets, streaming with motorbikes who flow without hesitation through every free space, even if that’s the sidewalks. Saigon is in constant motion, a hive of activity. The air filled with beeps, bells and horns from bikes, cars, buses and carts that say “look out or get flattened”. Crossing this city may seem impossible – crossing the street is daunting enough, but it is possible. In a ballet, everyone has their space, their moves, […]

Cambodia perspectives

I didn’t know if I’d write about this, but as a lay on a gurney at the side of a crowded Cambodian ER, I knew I had to. What I saw in that fluorescent lit room told the story of these people, and their history in a way that reading a book, watching a documentary, or touring around never could. The legs of an elderly man showed the scars of torture, his emaciated frame reflecting the years of starvation, disease and hard labour in intolerable conditions, and the “good years” of subsistence living. Lovingly cared for and made as comfortable […]

Hospitalised in Cambodia: the worst week

Medical inequality exists everywhere in the world, and I experienced it first hand in the Hopital Calmette in Phnom Penh.  Nothing against the hospital.  The staff were wonderful, but our experience proved that money can buy health — and we bought it. What just happened? I went from having an annoying little gastrointestinal issue to not being able to pick myself up from the bathroom floor, and falling further downhill rapidly, in just a matter of hours. I woke Mark at midnight to let him in on what had been occurring for the last two hours, and the look of […]