Thursday, 27 November 2014

Two Days in the Mekong Delta

So, earlier this week I ventured out of the Ho Chi Minh City area, towards The Mekong Delta!! 


It was me and three of my Saigon friends, and we went with a tour company called TNK tours, it was brilliant. A busload of about forty people from a variety of countries - I spoke French with a girl from Paris and Finnish with a girl from Espoo, had our first lunch with a pair of older Dutch ladies, had fun chats with the Spaniards and the Malays (is that how you spell someone from Malaysia?) and made good friends with two lovely Israeli girls we spent time with later in Saigon as well.

Our tour guide was a star of a human being called Mr Hai. He was hilarious. Best of Mr Hai:

“My name is Hai. You can call me Mr Hai... or Mr Hello...”

(after we clapped him): “Because of your beautiful claps, I don't need lunch... You make me full.”

(when AidZ wanted to drive the boat): “You want to drive the boat? Ok, just let me get my family off...”

& when he was explaining that if we don't “follow the handsome tourguide” (him), we may end up on a ferry to Cambodia.

& his slogan: “No money no honey”, said in a variety of interesting situations...

oh, AND, when he asked the bus load at the beginning what was the “first thing they noticed/liked about Vietnam”. “The people,” replied someone. “Ah yes, beef pho,” said Mr Hai. (Ie., noodle soup. And he did actually hear wrong. Bless.)

Ok, well, not so funny written down. Lol. Sorry. But if you heard his ACCENT and his way of speaking, his SARCASM, and the amount he spoke about his “family”. Family is very important in Vietnam. At the end of the tour, however, we got the honour of being called his “family”. Ah, bless you Mr Hai.

ANYWAYS. Our first stop was at this gorgeous temple. My first temple, very exciting!

Hanging out with Buddha

Second stop was a boat taking us to Turtle Island (I think).

Even boat drivers must use their phones 
We also passed Dragon Island and Unicorn Island. We were greeted by a gorgeous dog waiting for us to dock, it was like being part of a very cheesy dog-centered children's film. Lassie awaiting you with its hair (fur?) waving in the wind. Adorable anyways. The whole trip was full of ADORABLE dogs. And rest assured, none of them were lunch.
Greetings strangers

Very pretty

At this place you could have a free lunch of pork and rice and veggies or pay ten dollars for the funky fish. I don't think anyone chose the funky fish.
Mr Hai introducing the Funky Fish
Next stop was THE KINGDOM OF THE COCONUT, something Mr Hai was very enthusiastic about. Indeed it was full of many very high exciting palm trees, though I don't think I was able to enjoy it to the maximum due to Death by Heat. Have I mentioned Vietnam is hot? Tropical, even? (I still enjoy describing the weather, seemingly exaggerating, as 'tropical', till I realise that wait, it actually IS tropical. Like, literally. Like, literally literally.) I probably haven't, since I don't that often experience it – I'm either at work or somewhere where you can easily go into a cold air-conditioned shop/café/house. But, well, the boat had no air con.
I've not often been on organised tours, and the whole Kingdom of the Coconut bit was quite... interesting. We went to see a 'local family' make their 'coconut candies'. We crowded round them taking photos as if they were the zoo animals I so often compare myself to, and then we could taste the sweets and buy coconut sweets, or coconut whiskey, or coconut rum with cobras and scorpions inside, or coconut chapstick, etc etc, from the local family's local souvenir table. A very interesting and lovely experience, but at the same time, haha, so TOURISTY.
Coconut candies being made

Traditional Vietnamese island meets tourist needs

...all I know is that they are fruit.
(I am not necessarily one to critisize tourists if you have a look at the hat I bought... which was fun for a while, but then I decided I don't want to be THAT touristy, so I left it 'accidentally' on the bus.)

Another attraction of THE KINGDOM OF THE COCONUT was Coco the Miserable Snake. (I just named him.) Coco the Miserable Snake lives in a box except for his probably rather frequent outings of being draped over the shoulders of silly tourists, and I doubt his life is included in the Top 10 most exciting lives of snakes, and I did feel quite sorry for him. But, well, I was tourist enough to want a photo with him. And Coco did have a special affection for tourists, since it did start coiling itself around me and took special interest in my armpit (maybe better armpit than bum, as it was in my friend M's case). Mr Hai did reassure us earlier that Coco “does not eat tourist meat”.
Me with Coco
After Coco the Miserable Snake it was time for Super Authentic Mekong Delta Experience Number 1, the little boats through the little rivers. Like Venice except the surroundings were slightly different. We had our own, erm, gondola, and our own gondola chauffeur taking us down the canals of the Mekong Delta. Gorgeous.

Then it was time to move on towards our hotel destination, the town of Can Tho. Can Tho is comparable (in my mind) to Bien Hoa, except instead of Bien Hoa's 99,99% Vietnamese and 00,01% non-Vietnamese, Can Tho seemed to be like 35% Vietnamese, 65% tourists. Ish.

We visited the night market (I love night markets. And markets here. The clothes are STUNNING. The only reason I haven't bought any more is because I am so horribly bad at making decisions I usually decide to leave with nothing.) and had a relatively expensive Westerny dinner at a French restaurant – even with a crepe for dessert! (AidZ had a formula called 'The Snake Menu', which we all tried a bit. I can now say I have eaten snake.)
Snake spring roll
Ice cream and chocolate crepe <3

The next morning breakfast was at the nice fresh hour of 6.15am, ready to leave at 7am for our next attraction. On a bit of a side topic, the Vietnamese have a very different rhythm to us. Many wake up at 5am, and even at 6am everything is in full order – streets full, food places open. This is because when it gets to midday it is just too hot for anyone to want to do anything, so everyone naps. It's not surprising to enter a shop, or a market, and have at least one of the staff lying on the floor in a corner napping. Xeom-drivers often nap on their bikes. (Not while moving, ofc. Lol.) And the policy for hotels is that the doors are locked at night with a member of staff sleeping in a put-up bed, ready to wake up for the silly tourists who arrive after midnight. In one of my hotels twice I had to climb over the spiky fence to get into my hotel because no one heard my “hello?”-shouts. Lol.
Green oranges outside our hotel
ANYWAYS. Early start. Time to see Super Authentic Mekong Delta Experience Number 2, the floating markets!!
Half of us were lucky and got life jackets
What is a floating market?

Well, a market that floats.

Ok, well, it isn't exactly a sight you go see because of its beauty. It is a market. BUT ONE THAT FLOATS. Ie. It consists of boats. We went round in a boat, all of us tourists, and there were boats everywhere, each selling some produce – mostly fruit and veg, but there were also smaller boats where the sellers sold lunch (noodles/pho) or drinks (iced coffee, water, Coke etc). If you wanted to buy something they would, erm, anchor your boat with a rope and then do business.

With a little boy as our server...
A drinks boat came our way, I bought an iced coffee (ca phe sua da in Vietnamese), probably my FAVOURITEST (like, so favourite it needs to have bad grammar to accentuate it YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN?) consummation here. Maybe I can dedicate a blog post to it. I probably won't though. Well, it's basically a glass full of ice where you add a tiny bit of strong coffee and condensed milk. HEAVENLY.

Then the pineapple boat came our way, and that was definitely one of the highlights of the whole trip. You could jump onto their boat and buy a lollipop-shaped pineapple they carve specially for you. You eat it off a stick. Absolutely brilliant. My mouth still has a little sore bit from Overdose of Pineapple.

Note how his finger becomes the man at the back's legs...
Good picture opportunities too, though this one did not mean to have a random Italian guy in it... I hovered nearby hoping he'd get the hint to move a bit out so I could get my picture taken, but he didn't, and happily joined me in the photo... If I actually knew him this could be my new facebook profile...
Apparently some of the boats had 'eyes' painted on them to scare off crocodiles. That's all I'm gonna say.

After the floating market we went to the Kingdom of the Rice Noodle. (It wasn't actually called that, but it was the Coconut equivalent.) Watching a 'local family' make noodles. Interesting.

So many sleepy doggies <3
Om nom coconut drink
The Fluffiest of Them All <3
Trying to help me open my water bottle
Our final stop was at a Barbecue-place. Not any old Barbecue though, but the menu was Barbecued Frog, Barbecued Snake and Barbecued Rat. AidZ had a plate of rat, enjoyed it so much he bought a second plate. I contented myself with a plate of fruit.
Frying frogs and snake. 
My choice
And then it was time to gradually head homewards, boat and four-hour bus ride.
But not before buying, erm, coconut pancake stuff? SO GOOD 
The second fun day ended in Saigon with me losing both my Pedicurginity AND my Manicurginity in the same night...
Beauty Salon timeZzzzZzz 
Nails feat. Delta bracelet which I got down to 38,000 from 60,000 :)
Followed by a nice dinner and drinks, followed by a night in my beloved Green Suites Hotel (the hotel I stayed at four weeks ago when I arrived...), followed by a breakfast with ca phe sua da with THIS view. <3
An excellent weekend. :) (Well, weekstart. Saturday and Sunday are do not fit the criteria of a weekend.)

Now all I can say is...

Toi mun ma kai nai ve.
('I want to take this away' is the translation but imagine it to be a fancy way of saying goodbye.)


PS. Thanks google maps and paint, here is a rough map version of where we went...

Admire the artwork please

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Chicken feet, cockroaches and plane-spotting

19.11.2014 Xin chao! Long time no write, I seem to have phases. But now I MUST write it's been a while...

So, what's happened since I last wrote. Well, I've settled more into BH life, and I really do enjoy teaching and lesson planning, and our group of BH teachers are a great bunch. We've gone for many drinks and meals together, played Monopoly (superb game!!) and gone to the cinema (60,000 for a cinema ticket, that's just under two quid. And INTERSTELLAR was frikking AHMAZINGGGGGGG). And yeah, gradually getting the hang of teaching. I adore my students. 

So what's happened...

I ordered noodles with vegetables, I got rice with chicken. I guess it works...
Vietnamese life is definitely making me more open to dodgier foods. My first Banh Mi (=sandwich) I had, I made sure they only put one out of the many dodgy meats. My future ones, I let them put everything. I'm sure I've eaten duck and much dodgier meats as well in the banh mis, but the thing is, if I don't think about it, it's fine. I still wouldn't touch a plate of duck at one of our many lunches at my centre (I've been here three weeks, and we've had three free lunches (always with an elaborate cake) celebrating something or other – the other teachers constantly remind us “not to get used to it”, but, well...), but everything else was scrumptious. :)

Lunch #1
Lunch #3
I must admit I was well happy to have Pizza Hut pizza at our most recent free lunch here. Granted it was seafood pizza (what else could you expect in this country), but I happily picked the largest blobs of crab off and it was SCRUMPTIOUS. The food in Vietnam is lovely, but sometimes you want something.... closer to home.

Talking of NOT closer to home, though, I still felt physically sick when I realised that there were remnants of feathers on my chicken at one chicken rice place - you can't be too picky here! And I really can't handle much talk about the fertilised eggs that are a speciality here... as in, eggs that already have a bird fetus in them. I apologise for sharing that with you.
Here's the chicken... It does not bring pleasant memories.
But, even though feathers on my chicken does put me off, other aspects like chicken feet (yep, they waste no bit of the chicken) does not put me off the rest of the chicken. You learn to pick out the bits that are edible. (Just to clarify, I did not touch the chicken foot. But I did have some of the rest of the chicken.)
May I tempt you with some Foot of Chicken? 
In Saigon yesterday my friends ordered fish. I was a bit unsure about it since it was an actual, whole fish and you could see the poor miserable face of that fish on the plate... But, well, picking out the edible bits, it was actually quite nice.
Never thought I'd touch this...
Street food - scrumptious but waiters do need to be reminded quite a few times what and how many you ordered....
I've even managed to order in Vietnamese once or twice (mi xao bo – beef noodles)! :) 
Ordered all by myself from our local café :) :) :) 
And the other day for lunch I think McK and I ended up eating frog. The meal (meat and rice) cost 16,000 (less than 50p), the cheapest meal yet (if you don't count banh mis, which are usually 15,000), and we chose the 'normalest' looking meat. It was nice but had tiny bones which was slightly worrying. My new friends The Malaysian Couple said immediately that it was frog. Ok, well...

One evening, after a long day at work I decided I really want some 'comfort food'. You don't get western comfort food here, but I went to this restaurant / bar / pub (I still just call it the rum place since that's where we often go for after work-drinks) which had a more... not-Vietnamese menu. I ordered spaghetti bolognaise and a 'fruit platter' as a 'side dish', well it didn't turn out to be a 'side dish'... It was mahoosive. But very delicious, tasted that new fruit, dragonfruit is it? Or something like that.
I did feel like a queen
My friend / colleague Eli from BH also introduced me to another Exotic Fruit – similar to lychees? (Or maybe they actually are lychees?) You break the skin, and pick out the slimy lychee (without letting it slip from your hands onto the floor, as happened to me multiple times) and eat it. Quite nice, except I felt a bit ill the night I had them so I don't really, like, crave them atm...
All in all, my diet isn't massively varied, noodles and rice and bread and all those carbs. I don't eat much – eating by myself is often way too much effort in a foreign land. Like, today I went into a café advertising pho (the soup). After an amusing hand-written conversation with the guy (they just don't understand me. Luckily I have learnt how to write a few words though. Except if you get the accents of 'pho' (the soup) wrong you end up saying/writing 'prostitute'. Apparently.) it turned out they have no pho, they have no food, which confused me since they had all their spices and sauces etc out... Hmm.
Yesterday's chocolate drink however was rather delicious
Food is a daily adventure here. But, in general, it is really good. 

Next topic. 

ON THE WILDLIFE FRONT: In all fairness, the animals here aren't in the best condition, but I guess that can be expected. It doesn't stop them from being ADORABLE though...

Hello sunshine
And, well, I'm sure you've all seen my facebook status, but I have now officially had my Most Horrific Encounter With Cockroach (MHEWC, pronounced “myook”). Went to pub toilet, was pleasantly surprised that this one had toilet roll (I'd estimate that it's about a 50-50 chance that your toilet has toilet paper), picked it up, and something just FELL. I guess the only reason I didn't scream/faint/pass out was my first inkling was not that it was a cockroach. I am so used to being paranoid about them that often when I get afraid of them I know that it's highly unlikely the worst will actually happen. I mean, cockroaches wouldn't actually JUMP on you... 

Wrong. Only when I swished it on the floor I realised it was a cockroach, scuttling away. I was absolutely panic-stricken, and did not touch my drink for a fair twenty minutes just coz I was scared I'd drop it because of my very, very, very shaky hands.
From the said toilet, just seconds before..............

I love the view from work.
You can see the HCMC towers on the horizon

ON THE TRANSPORT FRONT: Went to Saigon on Monday, had an awesome barbecue on the rooftop of one of our friends' house. He lives right near the airport, and I had an absolutely brilliant afternoon and evening plane-spotting and meeting my First Ever Pilot who shared many many exciting stories and facts which was very cool! And, I got to the magical number of 50 with my plane-spotting. (Give or take a few, to be fair.) I love rooftops. And aeroplanes.
Aeroplane # 14 ish


Also, more bus experiences I would like to share. After a lunch at the centre on Monday, I asked one of the TAs (teaching assistants, we have about fifteen of them I think, they're all Vietnamese) how to get to AidZz's (my airport friend) place. Suddenly there were five TA s crowded around a computer good-naturedly arguing about what the best route was, and bless them finally gave me a long set of instructions.

It involved getting a xeom to a further away bus station – well cool, went through some very scenic and interesting scenery. My xeom driver knew which bus I wanted to take (150), and lo and behold as we were pulling into the station bus 150 was just leaving. My xeom driver tried to wave at the driver/bus and stop them for me, but no.

“Oh well, no worries, I'll wait,” I said in my best Vietnamese (no, not really lol, but tried to get him to understand it). But no, the driver gestured for me to get back on the bike – he was gonna chase the bus down for me! Ok, cheers...

But, well, we did catch up with the bus, my xeom driver did wave more at the bus, but the bus driver clearly did not want silly western tourists on his bus, and ignored us. Oh well, luckily 150s seemed very frequent, so was on my way within ten minutes on the next bus.

Ooooo, AND on the fire engine front, last week we had a fire drill. I was well excited to see that it involved actual fire engines coming. And even more excited to see that it involved them hosing the building... They didn't quite reach our ninth floor. SO COOL.

Well, maybe that's enough ramblings for now. I'll try publish another entry this week since I do feel I have a lot to say. And next week, do you know what, next week: MEKONG DELTA. I_AM_SO_EXCITED.

Tam biet!
Flashback : Watermelon drink at Centre 1 on my induction day a few weeks back. AH.