Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Vietnam Part 4: Discovering Hoi An

On the first cloudy day in Danang, we headed straight for Hoi An, where it promptly started to rain. No matter, as it made the historical trading port all the more atmospheric and magical. Colorful fishing boats (such as the ones pictured above) still line the river, with plenty of hawkers on paddle boats hungrily staring down tourists and aggressively peddling boat tours. This can't be avoided, but after a while, the 40th "no, thank you" uttered becomes tiring.

The hard sell continued in the market and on the street, where local business owners would shout and try to attract your attention from nearly a block away. You can't let this put you off discovering the charming town, however, and must put it down to the new but growing tourism industry. We were asked to fill out a survey by Hoi An's cultural and tourism center, asking us what improvements could be made in order to attract visitors to Hoi An, which I found quite interesting.

Hoi An has a very heavy Chinese influence, as it saw a large influx of Chinese groups settling there in the 16th and 17th-centuries (I get my historical info via Wiki and Lonely Planet's "History" pages, btw, so don't take this as gospel). All the historical houses (which now serve as open-house museums), assembly halls, and temples are emblazoned with Chinese writing, though I was disappointed with the lack of opportunity to utilize my Cantonese and Mandarin there - no one spoke the language. More familiar with French (Vietnam being a French colony between 1887-1940), you would readily hear a Vietnamese tour guide leading large packs of French tourists, speaking accented, but easily understood French.

Silk shops and tailors adorn the streets of the Old Town, where tourists commonly take pages ripped from Elle or Vogue and ask for them to be expertly copied by the copious number of skilled seamstresses who work around the clock to produce lookalikes. An American woman staying at Fusion Maia asked if she could photograph me in my simple Forever 21 shirt-dress/shift in order to have it tailor made in Hoi An. "Sure, so you can have it in silk, rather than this cheap polyester!" I joked. I took a photo of an intricate gown I had fallen in love with on BHLDN, but alas, it was a tad too difficult to make.

We paused for a delicious lunch at Miss Ly - a restaurant located not far from the fresh food market in the Old Town. With Miss Ly herself at the helm, whipping up culinary delights such as those pictured below, her husband (an American) manages the customer-facing side of things with his friendly-but-not-overly-so approach to service and genuine, deep appreciation for Vietnamese food and culture. Though we ate at several notable restaurants in Hoi An (including the well-known and frequently lauded Morning Glory), Miss Ly was our favorite. Their homegrown, home-cooked attitude towards food and relaxed but popular (several people came in to make reservations for dinner while we were eating lunch) setting is a welcome combination to the restaurant scene in Hoi An.

There, we sampled mouth-watering Hoi An specialties, such as plump and flavorful White Rose dumplings (lost in the lower left hand corner in the photo above), cau lau, a type of thick, flour noodles wok-fried in a meaty, flavorful broth with pork and fresh vegetables (bottom center), plus a spicy, zingy Singapore fried noodle (top center) with fresh seafood and greens. After a rewarding but exhausting day trip to My Son sanctuary, we arrived at Miss Ly for the second time, hungry and thirsty. Although it wasn't on the menu, I sorely craved a grilled pork banh mi and apologetically asked the staff if this would be possible. Of course, I was served the best banh mi I've ever had (hands down) within 15 minutes or so of waiting. For dessert, I ordered a banana pancake (crepe to Americans) drizzled with condensed milk, and an iced Vietnamese coffee. Our eyes widened with each sensational bite as we marveled at the sheer freshness of the ingredients that were used - most likely purchased from the market just a few feet away.

The abundance of fresh vegetables and fruit in Vietnam never ceased to amaze me. Whereas vegetables can look dry, withering, and limp in the UK, they were bright, vibrant, and plentiful in Vietnam. Greens were sold in thick, generous bunches - too big for both of my hands to contain - and tomatoes appeared in large wooden crates as a juicy, attractive red. Chickens roamed freely on the streets, with fresh eggs being sold every few feet.

Hoi An will continue to learn and grow as a tourist attraction. But its historical importance for being considered, at one stage, as the best trading port of all of Southeast Asia and the stories behind its previous and current inhabitants will outlive the tacky souvenir shops and tailors so desperately seeking business.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Vietnam Part 3: Beach-side Pampering at Fusion Maia Resort, Danang

The first thing I did when we arrived to our room at Fusion Maia Resort in Danang, was 1) strip off 2) put all my "train" clothes in a "quarantine" plastic bag at the bottom of my travel pack, never to be used again 3) shower - twice. I washed my hair three times as I was so anxious about contracting lice on the train, I definitely thought that more was better. I smelled so bad and was so thirsty upon our arrival, that I made sure to sit at least 2 feet away from the poor girl who was checking us in at reception, all while chugging down the fresh plum juice we were offered as if it was my lifeline. I'm not being dramatic here, y'all - I'm just being real. I stank.

Memories of the roach-infested train soon faded into the background as I realized we had signed up (or rather, John had signed us up) for four days of luxury at the hotel. "Don't you think the train ride made this seem even better?" John smiled widely, as he swept his hand across the room. I scowled at him and applied ointment to the mysterious bites up my leg that I had acquired during the journey (remember the whole, "What I can't see, can't crawl on me?" mantra I repeated to myself? Clearly, something I couldn't see, definitely crawled on me. And had breakfast, lunch, and dinner).

Tantrum over, I took this in:

... and sank into the four-poster bed, nearly crying with joy at the sight and smell of truly clean sheets, fluffy pillows, a generously sized shower and bath, plus my favorite part - a pool to ourselves. This was more like it.

We headed straight for the private beach (as pictured in the first photo above) and promptly ordered a grilled pork banh mi, but not before scheduling massages for the evening, as - yes, it's true - two treatments per day, per guest, are included in the room price. Ingenious, right? The spa menu included everything from your usual mani/pedi to luxurious deep tissue massages and facials. After a while, the pampering became a little ... well ... onerous (I'm joking here, in case you can't tell). "Our massages are in 10 minutes," John and I apologetically told our friends, who had stopped by the resort for a drink. "We wish the timing wasn't so rushed, but ... you know." "I need time for my nails to dry after the manicure," I added, eyes rolling. Someone should have just poked my eyes out then and there. How quickly one can lose perspective!

But in all seriousness, the spa treatments were heavenly and totally blissful. Yoga classes were held in a beautiful studio within the spa complex at 8 am each morning. John joined in for one class, then I went to another on my own.

In the afternoons and evenings, we took the hotel's shuttle bus to Hoi An, a popular and well-preserved fishing village located about 30 minutes from Danang. Full of souvenir shops and tailors who can easily whip up a dress from a page torn from Vogue, Hoi An was a village rich in history and terrific food. The shuttle deposited us in front of the hotel's satellite location in Hoi An, Fusion Lounge, which - not only served you your included breakfast, if you so wished to dine there - but featured a mini-spa upstairs, where a number of express treatment options were available. I had a manicure upstairs and enjoyed a drink while John had a neck and shoulder massage after a long day of sight-seeing.

Breakfasts at the Fusion Lounge included "bento" boxes with a theme of your choice - I usually went for the "Fusion Bento" above, which included an adorable box of fresh pastries as well (not pictured).

We enjoyed ourselves so much that we decided to stay an extra day (or rather, I convinced John that an extra night at the hotel on one of the sunniest and hottest days of our trip would have been preferable to seeing the imperial opulence at Hue).

And when it was time to go, I was really, really sad to say goodbye. I can't imagine any other time when I'll be scheduling in two massages into my day, plus a yoga session against a backdrop of crashing waves. Spoiled. Rotten.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Vietnam Part 1: Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon

I'm blogging about our recent trip to Vietnam in a few parts, because it's impossible to fit everything into one post. There was simply too much variety, confusion, elation, excitement, and adventure to communicate in one attempt, so I'm going to try my best here.

We arrived back to a snowing UK (SNOWING) on Tuesday morning - me, with my swollen ankles and abnormally large calf due to a particularly nasty mosquito bite - feeling, well, slightly deflated that our holiday fun was over. In fact, I felt (and still do) almost indignant, as if someone had turned the lights on the party way, way too early. I regret not taking a longer holiday and swinging by Hong Kong, for example, and all of this was made worse by the fact that London was even colder than we had left it, not warmer - frigid and unwelcoming.

But back to where we started: in Saigon.

I was most amazed and bewildered by the steady stream of motorcycle/moped/car/truck/bus traffic that encircled the city and acted as the pumping life-force of Ho Chi Minh City. If Ho Chi Minh was a heart, then its traffic was its heartbeat: neverending, steady, orderly chaos. Chaos was an understatement. I had read in copious Tripadvisor forums and guidebooks warning me of the traffic that never stopped, never stalled - not even for pedestrians. Instead, you are expected to stride slowly but purposefully, into oncoming traffic, with the promise that the city's ubiquitous motorbikes, carrying sometimes up to 6 members of a family (babies were held haphazardly on laps, toddlers stood at the front of scooters, eyes barely scraping over the handlebars), would dodge you.

I found looking at the ground particularly helpful. If I were to look up, I'd almost immediately fall into a hyperventilating panic attack, convinced that I would be hit. This only happened to me twice, by the way, which is pretty good going, IMO.

Horns were frequently used, not out of annoyance, like they are in the West, but rather as a courtesy to let mopeds know a car was about to pass, or wanted to, for example. A friendly "beep beep" here and there turned the city's air into a cacophony of frantic traffic noise, but to look at the drivers' faces would tell otherwise: placid, calm, often bored, situations that would cause me to slap my hands over my eyes (there were several near misses) did not faze the Saigon locals. Not one bit. I found this fascinating. And in our hallucinatory, jet-lagged state, we sat in 36 degree heat with a Coke and people-watched for an hour or so.

We stayed at the impeccably and charmingly kept Ma Maison boutique hotel, run by the very, very earnest Natasha Long and her equally enthusiastic staff.

Upon our very early arrival, we were asked to take our shoes off (in following with Vietnamese custom and the custom of many other Asian countries) and offered a cold drink and baguette with jam in this lovely courtyard, where we were promptly checked-in. We left our bags at the hotel and returned in the afternoon to be shown to our room.

The hotel's colonial architecture did not disappoint, and the rooms were tastefully decorated in accordance with the style. If the bed above looks like a dream to sleep in, that's because it was. There was no shortage of plumped pillows or cool sheets here and the strong air conditioning provided much respite from the oppressive heat.

Had we stayed in Saigon for a few more days, I would have loved to make Ma Maison our base. They make a mean beef pho for breakfast and I, foolish enough to have the Western breakfast of eggs and bacon (thinking the protein eggs would give me more energy for the day), had serious food envy at John's bowl of soup noodles, complete with homemade broth and fresh herbs.

That night, we ate at Quan an Ngon, as recommended by Natasha, which we later realized had been highly regarded by many papers, travel guides, and blogs as the place to dine in Vietnam. Famous for its authentic "street food" feel without the "street" factor (the restaurant is chic and looks suitably upscale, even if the prices aren't), it's run by one of Vietnam's most well-known chefs, with sister restaurants in Hoi An (where Colin and Sofie had kindly made reservations at for our first dinner together) and Hanoi.

I ordered my first rare beef pho of the trip, which arrived with succulent pieces of beef - tender and perfectly pink. John had a spiced beef stew served with a thick, crusty French baguette, or banh mi, and we shared the grilled prawns above, which were (as you can imagine) simply perfection. I cracked open the prawns greedily and the meat was sweet - exactly what you would expect from something that is fresh from the sea - and we rolled these in a salt and chili mixture with a squeeze of lime. At the end of the meal, I ordered the steamed banana cake, and John had a coffee. Our bill came to £12. I felt full and also a bit wrong, as a similar meal would easily cost over £25 or £30 in the UK.

Still, we strolled back to our hotel after a comfortable taxi ride with our bellies full of delicious, mouth-watering sustenance and our minds full of promise for what Vietnam could offer in the next few days. We slept restlessly that night, our excitement overtaking our simultaneous desire to simply "be" and exist in a new, vibrant country - wanting to absorb its culture and pulse by osmosis.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Right Now, I Miss This: Vietnamese Coffee

I'll write more about my recent trip to Vietnam when I can keep my eyes open for more than 30 minutes at a time (jet lag sucks), but for now, let me just say that I really, really, really miss Vietnamese coffee. Every time we stopped for a rest from our tourist activities or for a mid-morning/afternoon/evening drink, I'd order a Vietnamese iced coffee "with milk", knowing full well that they meant condensed milk - that favorite, sticky, sickly-sweet addiction of mine that is hard to find in the UK but readily added by Cantonese cafes to thick pieces of toast and the like. Our friends, Sofie and Colin (who happened to be in Hoi An at the same time) were thoroughly grossed out by the addition of this delicious, thick milk to the already sweetened coffee, but I was in seventh heaven.

The photo above is from a very hard to find cafe (read: tucked in far back off the street in a silk shop, up three spiral staircases) in Hanoi, which gives terrific rooftop views over the city. That's my iced coffee on the left, and John's egg white coffee on the right.

In. Love.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Americans: Tired of Sending Mother's Day Cards That Say "Mum"? Paperchase Can Solve That.

So I was browsing the giant Paperchase near Tottenham Court Road last night (3 floors of stationery goodness, including leather goods and accessories by Comme des Garcons - ohhhhhhh, yes) and - being the over-prepared person that I am - decided to stock up on Mother's Day cards. I was even thoughtful enough to pick one up for John, since I knew he probably wouldn't have time to get one. Smug face.

And then I saw these, which stopped me in my tracks:

MOM CARDS. The holy grail of Mother's Day cards in the UK: cards that say "mom", rather than "mum". Jackpot. You see, this year, Mother's Day in the UK is on March 10th - Mother's Day in the US is May 12th. And since it feels wrong not to recognize my mother's accomplishment in raising such a wonderful, brilliant daughter (ahem) on both days, I send her a card on each Mother's Day, every year since I've lived here. So that's going on 12 cards now. Not bad, right?

The thing is, my mom will always be my mom. Not my "mum", my "mom". John's mum is his "mum", my mom is "mom" (and I don't care where my child grows up, he/she WILL call me "mommy". I cringe at "mummy"). End of. If my kid makes me a "HaPpie MoTHeR's DaY to the BEST mUM" card, I'll a) feel like a failure as a mother in my child's inability to spell "happy" correctly and b) tear it up and serve it to him/her for dinner. No. Not really. But still ...

Back to Paperchase. The possibilities were endless; how could I possibly choose? Luckily, I was able to settle for two, rather than one. 

With this "mom" vernacular hijacking of the Mother's Day card section in Paperchase, one thing became clear: Americans are taking over. Muahahaha. I totally did an inner fist pump, btw. 

© angloyankophile

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