Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Risotto to Lemon Grass

Ho Chi Minh City is a hot, sticky risotto.
Our hotel had amazing sound proof windows and despite the never ceasing traffic outside, we slept like babies till about 5am when our body clocks demanded food. This was a great time to be up and about because the heat wasn't too intense.
Taxi refuelling, 6am.

A Vietnamese buffet breakfast is an interesting combination of rice, pho and fruit. Concessions to the western tourist trade include bacon and pancakes, making the plate look very interesting. The coffee is thick and intense. We let Taine have two cups and 12 hours later he's still pinging!

Out on the street by 7.30 we ran the gauntlet of street vendors to check out the food stall end of the Ben Tahn markets. I cannot describe the mixture of morbid fascination and revulsion evoked by the tightly packed bundles of live frogs and crabs systematically being gutted, chopped and filleted in front of us. The gutters ran red with blood as the vendors calmly went about their business, eating their morning pho with one hand while chopping up offal with the other.

Outside the market, the street paths were alive with people eating breakfast, sleeping on their motorbikes, cooking, playing cards, washing dishes in buckets, smoking, eyeing off pretty girls (a group of boys in school uniform were very excited to see Sophie walk past) and generally going about their daily business.

By 8.30am it was already unbearably hot. The smog is very thick and breathing is difficult. We'd planned to walk a bit further to the Reunification Palace but I was struggling to get to the end of the street! The humidity was so intense my camera refused to cooperate. We took refuge in the air conditioned Saigon Centre where we drank more coffee and flower tea. The shops there were like shops in any big shopping complex anywhere in the world. It was boring but cool.

Back through the markets we finally stopped to make a few purchases before heading back to the hotel to have a shower before our transit flight to Hoi an. Visiting HCMC was an unmissable experience but we were all exhausted by our 24 hrs there.

We'd been warned that domestic flights in Vietnam are sometimes unreliable and often delayed but our trip with Jetstar Pacific went without a hitch. The plane was new and comfortable and the trip to Da Nang a quick 90 minutes. What a contrast it was to walk out of the Da Nang airport and into the waiting vehicle of our Hoi an transport. There even seems to be a respected road management system in Da Nang and although there were still a lot of motorbikes and horn pressing, it was lower key and without the imminent feeling of certain death that had accompanied every minute in HCMC.

The coastal road to Hoi an is a contrast of cultures and lifestyles. Swanky, exclusive resort complexes populate the beach front, their backs and manicured lawns firmly turned on the shanty like local houses behind them on the roadside. We have no concept of how it is to live at either end of the financial spectrum, so we just drove down the middle with our mouths agape.

Closer to Hoi an we got a glimpse of rural Vietnam with people in conical hats tending the fields and roaming water buffalo (that Google tells me are only here for the tourist trade). We're staying at Hoi an Rivertown, a new hotel on the river and close to the Old Town. The welcome here was delightful- fresh fruit and nuts and juice drunk through a lemon grass straw. Our room overlooks the river and an interesting motorbike bridge whose slippery, rubber surface already has us jumping up every 5 minutes to check out the latest crash!

From the balcony we watched the rain sweep in from further up the coast and waited it out by having an excellent dinner in the hotel restaurant. A wander through the night markets and a swim reminded us that we've come here to relax, something we don't do a lot of at home.

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