We flew out of Kota Kinabalu on 5 January headed for a rendezvous with cousin George Burchett and wife Ilza in Hanoi. As can happen the flight itinerary was a bit of a zigzag in order to accommodate various airline schedules ie we had to travel via Kuala Lumpur and Ho Chi Minh City.
Now because of a delayed flight out of KK we were late for our connecting flight to Ho Chi Minh and, as a consequence had to run the length of Kuala Lumpur’s airport to board our connecting flight. This was a little scary and the shortest ever trip to the toilet en route.
Now the next leg to Hanoi had been booked with Jetstar who had advised us a month before leaving Australia that our flight had been pushed back some two hours –leaving us stranded in HCM airport for three hours
We luckily had arranged for our hotel to send a car to meet us at the airport but we still did not get to our room till just after midnight – pretty tired having spent the whole day and half the night travelling.
Next morning we were able to truly appreciate Hanoi from our hotel room balcony. The beautiful smell of locals enjoying Pho, fresh bread and coffee. As it turned out our hotel was not more than a couple of hundred metres from the NW corner of Hoen Kiem Lake. The Hanoi Old Centre Hotel (www.hanoioldcentrehotel.com) in Hang Hahn Street has turned out to be great value at about $40/night including an amazing breakfast menu.
Our Hotel and the views below our second floor balcony room and surrounding streets
Our first chore was to get new local sim cards for our phones and while Maria’s proved no problem they could not unlock mine and so I had to buy a new cheap Nokia ($20) to get me by. We then rang George and arranged to meet around lunchtime.
George and wife Ilza arrived on a motorbike and there was instant recognition. They proved most welcoming hosts with George insisting we walk right around the Lake to get our bearings and become attuned to the nuances of Hanoi which he proudly exclaimed to be ‘the most cultured city in Asia’.......we tend to agree.
George & Ilza Burchett and then around the Lake
We had a good exchange of family news over the odd bottle of Hanoi Beer.
We were taken to a private art gallery run by a friend and was able to look over its current exhibition of quite modern work undertaken by a Vietnamese artist living in Paris.
George, on hearing we had yet to visit Hue, insisted we lunch at restaurant which specialised in the very delicate flavours of Imperial Hue cuisine – very exquisite presentation of numerous small dishes with very delicate subtle flavours…It was great.
That evening we took a taxi to their home very close to West Lake. Where we enjoyed a couple of pre-dinner drinks while viewing their own artwork displayed on the walls of their three story house.
Drinks at George & Ilza's home
Some of George and Ilza's works
Street graffiti near the Burchett's apartment and the Bia Hoi restaurant and bar
We were then taken to a local restaurant where we were offered a selection of local Vietnamese classical dishes plus the local draught beer Bia hoi (Fresh Beer) which has no preservatives and is brewed daily…..not bad but a little soapy, I thought.
We had the next day to ourselves and spent it wandering about the Old Quarter re-discovering old haunts and becoming quite blasé’ about taking on the motorbikes, cars, cyclos at the teeming intersections. Within a couple of hours I felt I could navigate my way around this inner area of Hanoi without a map.
Despite George’s warning of cold weather it has been quite mild; although the locals are all wrapped up in padded jackets and coats.
We looked up a restaurant Gil Tutty thought maybe a goodin and it proved to be just so. The Cha Ca Thang Long restaurant only serves the one dish Cha Ca at a fixed price of $9 which includes a bottle of Hanoi Beer. The place was full of locals plus a scattering of tourists/expats. The dish consists of fish pieces which are fried at your table with loads of greens and then served in a bowl of rice noodles, spring onion, chillies and fish sauce – its an iconic Hanoi dish prepared for us at our table with a very matter of fact display with no fan fare or theatrics.
Maria then decided she needed a new wind and rain proof jacket and picked up a Gore-Tex jacket for $48 – cheap as chips plus its red and so I will be better able to keep an eye on her.
While strolling about I noticed a chap squatting amongst a pile of desk top fan bits and pieces which he was busily engaged in repairing. Later on came across a sign in another shop reading: ‘no suitcase too hard to mend’……what industry.
On returning home we saw an email from bloody Jetstar advising us of a further flight change to our return flight to HCM city - another two hour delay.
On our last night we dined out at the Quan An Ngon Restaurant – beautifully set in an old French villa and we sat at a table adjacent to the kitchen so we could observe the chefs in action. George and Ilza selected our menu of a variety of Spring Rolls, Squid, Duck and Pork Belly and two bottles of Bordeaux Cabernet-Merlot – a great meal with much lively conversation.
George that night generously offered us one of his art works as a gift; which we love and will treasure. He also urged us to return to Hanoi so as to visit Hue and also to get Amy and Ben to come over and visit them.
George Burchett's gift to us
A final word about that 'Weasel' coffee available for sale all over Vietnam.
By far the majority of it is fake and has been replicated via soaking the beans in a particular enzyme - however, for connoisseurs the real thing still is available:
Authentic Domestic Weasel Coffee - 100 grams
Our Price: $90.00
On the eastern edge of the Dak Lak province in central Vietnam, lies a coffee plantation that is willing to sell small amounts of 100% weasel coffee. These are domesticated weasels, that live in a large cages, like zoo animals, and are fed coffee along with other foods. The quality of the product is exquisitely rich, with a chocolate overtone and creamy mouth feel. The street price of this coffee in Hanoi is $800 USD per kilo. They sell in 100 gram packages and custom grind to your specification
While I tried to get Jetstar Pacific to put us on an earlier plane, the news was only of further successive delays resulting in us leaving Hanoi just like we arrived - in the middle of the bloody night.
We went to the airport at 1500 hours only to find the check in counter chaotic and a very restive and aggressive passenger queue at Jetstar. I could hear daughter Amy’s advice ringing in my ears –"Dad - never waste your time flying with budget airlines because they inevitably let you down"…so bloody true!.
In all we had 5 altered and delayed departure times eventually leaving at 2115 in lieu of the original timetabled departure time of 1030 – they offered no apologies during the flight and had offered us dinner of Fried Rice and a bottle of water. After an argument with an obviously drunk taxi driver at the airport we got into our HCM hotel right on midnight.
Map of Southern Vietnam and Cambodia
Ho Chi Minh City
The Sao Nam Hotel in the backpacker strip of Pham Ngu Lao is a strictly a budget affair for our short stay here and is a far cry from the amenity provided by our hotel in Hanoi. Pham Ngu Lao appears to have altered little since our last visit here – full of young and old backpackers all intent on getting the most out of their stay in HCM by partying around the clock – we were a little too tired to get into the swing that night.
Sao Nam Hotel - 175/5 Pham Ngu Lao, District 1, HCM
Landscaped Park which runs parallel to Pham Ngu Lao - a great refuge from the hustle and bustle
Next morning while out shopping in the Binh Tay Market we bumped in to an old mate from Darwin with whom Maria had worked while at the casino. Danny ? and his wife had just come down from Hanoi on the Reunification Express – which apparently has still not got any faster.
Met up with Jimmy Roberts in the afternoon and had a good catch up over the odd Saigon Green then went to a Dim Sum restaurant on the Saigon River for dinner. Jimmy unchanged albeit a little more rotund - like a lot of us!
Next day began with a fine bowl of Pho ‘ Ga (chicken) and some of the excellent local coffee. While Maria arranged a body massage, I took myself off for a quick re-visit to a couple of the war museums around central HCM.
We met up with Jimmy at about 2pm for a return visit to the central market to buy some further discretionary odds and sods and then headed off to a western grocer for Jim to pick up some specialty food stuffs unavailable in Can Tho eg pickled gherkins and cheese.
While a number of speciality French bakeries have popped up all over HCM, there is still no delicatessens as such access to quality ham and other continental small goods still unavailable. However, I have seen some Donor Kebabs street stalls which appear to be offering some very suspect greasy offering…..
On our last night Jimmy had arranged a dinner at an Italian restaurant "we can eat Vietnamese everyday and appreciate a change" with his brother Dick and partner plus a NZ expat by name of Arthur (another ESL teacher and former trainee chef who said he once worked in Stephanie's kitchen) and his partner. It was quite a long night. We started off with pre-dinner drinks at the Caravelle Hotel’s rooftop bar and ended up back in Pham Ngu Lao.
HCM's skyline (including the new Bitexco Tower) from the Caravelle's rooftop bar
Street decorations erected for forthcoming Tet holiday
HCM on the whole is getting more and more westernised together with the traffic problems that go with it......very rare to see anyone riding a bicycle let alone tourists being pumped along in Cyclos by some ancient peddler. There are now a growing number of skyscraper buildings and the central business district is currently being turned upside down as the authorities excavate HCM's first underground rail system - its chaos!
The bars around the tourist strip of Pham Ngu Lau are no longer full of young cosmopolitan backpackers but instead appear dominated by retired Europeans, Britains and Australian - many with a local female partner........these fellows are here primarily because of the cheap cost of living which stretches their government pensions and superannuation that much further than say in Thailand. Most still have to renew their visas once every three months (unless legally married to a local Vietnamese). However, Jimmy was able to introduce us to a couple of expats working as ESL teachers in various privately run institutions.
Can Tho (pronounced Can Ter) on Mekong Delta
Sunday morning we left by bus to Jimmy’s home in the Mekong Delta city of Can Tho (pronounced Can tay). This bus trip took approximately 3.5hrs for the 160km trip. We stopped en route at a delightful bus station for toilets and something to eat where we able to purchase a very tasty Vietnamese styled roast pork and coriander baguette.
Mekong Delta en route to Can Tho
Arriving at Jimmy a d Hahn’s hotel we found it to be a modest affair of 10 rooms with Jimmy occupying the top floor himself with well stocked fridge and balcony bar. Hahn meanwhile looks after their other establishment nearby. Jimmy said he was kept busy keeping the local authorities on side.
Jimmy & Hahn's (No 1 Hotel)
Jimmy's top floor Bar where we enjoyed the odd Saigon Red beers
After settling in we took a taxi down to a Mekong riverside restaurant bar surprisingly called The Mekong which is popular with local expats with whom Jimmy is close friends ; most appear to be English teachers working in a variety of institutions.
At the Mekong Bar/Restaurant
Just across the road from the restaurant stands the iconic bronze statue by the Mekong River of Ho Chi Minh.
Uncle Ho watches over the Mekong River - day and night
The next day we tried to visit the local museum only to find it closed on Mondays so instead we strolled down the riverside gardens looking at the river traffic. One can take cruises in the a.m. to witness the famous Mekong Floating Markets – which we did on our last visit here in April 2010 when Jimmy and Hahn got married. On our last night we accompanied a few of Jimmy's friends to a small restaurant on one of Can Tho's canals where we were introduced to Bia Phong Dinh a Can Tho produced beer which is provided under pressure in a two litre stainless steel thermos flask type of container
Two contrasting styles of Mekong River tourist vessels
Phu Quoc Island
Our Beachfront Bungalow (centre)
Getting Acclimatised to the Bar
View from our Bungalow Balcony (NB Stinger Net)
The renos to the rooms we had originally booked
One of our Resort's Russian guests readying for a swim
and a swim afterwards
Sorting the nights catch
Fish Sauce factory
We all had fond memories of the crystal clear turquoise waters of the southern Sao Beach and had decided to have lunch there. But when we discovered quite strong blustery winds whipping up a nasty chop on the beach which immediately lost its appeal for a quick swim. We nevertheless had lunch of quite good fish and chips and left to explore the northern half of the island which is predominantly set aside for a National Park. We stopped en route to change cameras at the hotel (someone had forgotten to charge them overnight) and then visited a Pepper farm for which the island is quite famous
While exploring some of the less developed coastal beaches I managed to get the damn bike bogged much to the amusement of a couple of passing inhabitants still it did give us the chance to discover some truly pristine beaches further south along Long Beach - they won't be here for much longer.
Fishing Fleet at anchor
Sights at the Duong Dong town market
Note these very plump marinated toads...Yum!
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