Archive for September, 2009

the great firewall of china

September 17, 2009

 

The flurry of posts in recent days, despite a truly glacial internet connection, has been in preparation for tomorrow’s crossing into China, where we are expecting beyondbagot to be blocked by the Great Firewall.

So it’s adios until Nepal – we’ll see you in Kathmandu in about 6 weeks. In the meantime, here’s a pic for you to remember us by:

 

 

P.S. See what I mean about WordPress’ inexplicably dodgy formatting? The post below looks like a dog’s breakfast. It makes me so angry!

there’s something about us and islands

September 16, 2009
Continuing our tour of places beginning with the letter “H”, we headed to beautiful Halong Bay. Having taken some advice from the ever wise Ryan & Jo, whose experiences before us we tend to sponge off to make our own lives easier, and the occasionally wise Thorntree, we decided to go it on our own rather than sign on to what was inevitably going to be a disappointing budget tour from Hanoi.
Two buses, a boat and another bus found us at Cat Ba Island and a day tour of the bay the next day allowed us plenty of time for swimming, eating squid, splashing about in kayaks and exploring fluorescently lit caves. The next few days saw us rained in, Phu Quoc-stylie, but that allowed us plenty of time for watching the US Open and straight-to-video Save the Last Dance 2 and sinking decidedly average Dalat red with a Cuban-Scot lass named Lindsay, some cool Israelis and an Irish nutritionist who was genuinely concerned about Linds’ dramatic weight loss (this is starting to sound like the opening line of a politically incorrect joke). His explanation that he was a “fat bastard” before we left home didn’t really cut it and resulted in us both receiving a lecture about the value of multivitamins and rehydrating solutions. More wine, I say.
 
Travel upon numerous land and sea vessels back to the mainland left us homeless for the day in Hanoi while we waited for our night train to Sapa. Pastries and a gaggle of conscientous and adorable uni students wanting to practice their English kept us well entertained for the afternoon. Any conversation with non-Australians invariably drifts to kangaroos and we take cruel delight in the looks of horror on people’s faces when we explain that they are indeed very delicious.
 
I had felt mildly annoyed by my lack of resistance to the sales push for a fancy and more expensive soft sleeper berth on the night train but thankfully, this evaporated the minute we laid eyes on the plush (by our standards, at least) carriage. And thus began our hopeless and continuing addiction to the Israeli card game, Yaniv, peddled to us by our delightful and irrepressible cabin mates, Michaella and Nihv, who lured us in with offers of cocktail nuts.
 
Sapa is a former hill station nestled in the Tonkinese Alps and like true colonials, we’ve revelled in playing cards on the balcony in the sun and sleeping under a doona for the first time in months. A necessary period of convalescence has kept us from hiking beyond the door to the patisserie but we might go check out a waterfall thingy tomorrow, conveniently located on the same road as the patisserie and it’s foggy and piddling with rain today so it’s pastry o’clock.

tropical beer notes #15

September 16, 2009

Bia Ha Noi 5% Vietnam

Unlike Saigon, there is only one choice in Hanoi. Bia Ha Noi it is, and it’s not a bad cleanser either. It makes sense; things are more austere and well grumpy here in the north. I can see them thinking “we don’t need all this endless choice – those pesky capitalist southerners and their market economy…” Probably not such a bad decision, given that it all pretty much tastes the same anyway.

When I took the above pic at a little noodle joint in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, the cook insisted I took a picture of the chicken butts next to me. Much hilarity ensued. Props to you, chicken butt dude.

 

the great asian shirt drought

September 15, 2009
It’s time for a rant. I’ve had one brewing for a while now. At first, my ire was directed towards WordPress and its formatting idiosyncracies. I even went so far to draft an angry post about it but, thankfully for you, I lost it in cyberspace. However, a bigger issue has been making my blood boil throughout this trip and it’s high time I got it off my (shirt-clad) chest. This rant has the added bonus of making me feel especially righteous. And it’s far more satisfying bitching about real people than about a computer program.
 
It’s other travellers. Not all, not even most, but a highly noticeable minority. The sort that quibble over paying 18,000 dong for a beer in a restaurant when they paid 12,000 for one at a shop (a difference of about 35 cents) and then happily go and blow five times that amount on a crappy Zinger burger at KFC. Or those who are continuously wanting to know if they can have their noodles with vegetable stock instead of chicken stock, when it’s clear that all the noodles come out of one pot that has chicken bits bobbing about in it, all the while barking their demand at the vendor in English when it’s clear that the vendor doesn’t speak a word.
 
But those who get my goat most of all appear to be victims of a strange phenomenon known as “the Great Asian Shirt Drought.”* Would you walk down the high street of whatever godforsaken coal-mining backwater that you’re from without a shirt on? No. Would you even wait for a bus on the side of a highway or dine in a restaurant in the aforementioned backwater without a shirt on, exposing your flabby gut and bogan tattoos to all and sundry? No. Then why is it suddenly appropriate to do all of these things and more without a shirt on as soon as you touch down in SE Asia?
 
Clearly, there is some sort of acute shirt shortage! Somebody call the UN! Tell them to send urgent shirt aid!
 
PUT A SHIRT ON, YOU CHUMP.
 
 
*Nobody but Linds and me actually recognises this phenomenon. Yet. I’m hoping it will catch on.

tropical beer notes # 14

September 12, 2009

bia hoi (draft beer) Vietnam ?%

This has to be the cheapest beer in the world: 3000 dong for a glass, that’s about 19 cents. You can drink it there or take it away – BYO vessel Hungarian vino style (or Toga 1999….).  It’s all no name brand and sold in grubby proletarian store fronts. That said, I don’t really get how they can make any dong out of it, despite my best efforts to drive them into profitability.

It’s super light, even for a Vietnamese beer. Sometimes a bit sour and tart, although I suspect that has more to do with what’s left in the glass overnight.

Best appreciated perched on a kindy-sized plastic stool* with a side order of air dried squid and moto fumes.

*The keg ladies often give me a small stack of stools for a bit more structural integrity, lest I squash them like beer can. Actually when I’m sitting in these places I look a bit like the drummer in that Supergrass clip.

on the move in vietnam

September 7, 2009

After spending a fair bit of languid time waiting around for things in places we’d already been, it was time to get a wriggle on and get some serious Vietnamese kilometres under our belt.

A few days back in Phnom Penh saw us collect our visas, both Vietnamese and Chinese, and head on our merry way. The visa application process, or lack thereof, perfectly embodies how things “work” in Cambodia. No forms; no details; no signature – just pay the fee to the right person (in this case, chihuahua-lover and hands-down winner of the Asia’s Most Efficient Man Award, Sem, at Exotissimo Travel) and it somehow magically happens. The other way things work is that people are incredibly kind, from the four generations of family that lived in the lobby of our hotel to the delightful Veary, who kept us well fed and watered at Aw’-Kun.

 

A few more days back in Saigon saw us welcome newly-arrived expat and “Business Development Manager”, James Kirton. After sending him to work hungover a few times and bestowing upon him our limited culinary expertise on the city, it was time to move on again and revisit that which we swore we’d never do again: the long-haul sleeper bus. Thankfully, it was “only” 23 hours this time and catching a magnificent blood-red sunrise over verdant rice paddies almost made it worth the trauma. Dodd decided to put the rest of the time to good use and listen to Captain Beefheart on a continuous loop.  Bat Chain Puller. Puller, puller.

 

 

Hoi An, where the livin’ is easy. To cope with the Luciferian heat, we decided it was only prudent to adopt a Spanish lifestyle – wake on the later side of early; stagger around in the heat until midday; snooze away the afternoon and rouse ourselves in the evening for cocktail hour. Our last couple of days saw us enjoy what has been our first and will likely be our last bit of beach for quite some time, and it was glorious. Deckchair, swim. Deckchair, swim. Repeat. Sorry Kizza and Janeo. At the risk of copping huge amounts of abuse from our gainfully employed readers, and perfectly timed to coincide with my own decision to resign from work, I’ll mention that the most taxing task of those couple of days was deciding whether or not to order a second serving of crunchy squid from the friendly beachside seafood vendors.

 

Hue: We felt we had a bit of unfinished business in Hue, it having been our first stop in Vietnam many weeks ago and the embarkation point of the original bus ride from hell. Imperial history, more blazing heat, more bikes. Cue lots of raised eyebrows and chuckling at the outlandish antics of two Hue personalities: the lady touts on motorbikes who see fit to slowly putt alongside of you while you’re wheezing your way up a hill on a bike with no gears; and the pint-sized Emperor Tu Duc, who was taller than some things, including chairs and women on their sides, and who pre-emptively ordered the execution of all 200 workers involved in his burial so as to forever conceal the location of his tomb.

The 13-hour train journey to Hanoi was a walk in the park, albeit a highly populated one, replete with endless people-watching opportunities – communist-clad septuagenarians with wispy beards; young, urbane Mac-toters; and toddlers who wandered the aisles sitting on strangers’ laps and helping themselves to their drinks and snacks. We had been quite proud of our own collection of snacks which included a box of sugar-free digestive biscuits – that was until we noticed the warning that “excess consumption may have a laxative effect.” After we’d munched down about 10 each. Woops. Thankfully, that doesn’t fall into the category of excess consumption, but it certainly had us worried for a while.
 
Hanoi is a city in love with the open flame. Although technically prohibited, the streets are usually filled with smoke of one kind or another – grilling meat; burning rubbish; or ceremonial fires where photocopied US dollars are burned as spiritual offerings (honestly, do they really think the spirits are that gullible?). We found our spiritual home in a four-storey BBQ barn where every kind of goat is ceremonially barbecued and devoured. Call us weak, but we bypassed the goat testicle and goat blood liquor for the more sedate offerings of goat fillet and goat “breast”, or udder. Although we were the only foreigners in the whole barn, we suspect they must have had a few problems with others setting things on fire as we were highly supervised throughout the whole goaty experience. I’ll just say “goat” a few more times for good measure: goat, goat, goat.
 
After the sweeping boulevards of Saigon, there is a definite charm to the narrow winding streets of Hanoi’s old quarter, which are named according to the goods traditionally sold there – silk street; pickled fish; coffins. It is also a city dominated by the personality cult of Ho Chi Minh and we paid a visit to his mausoleum and the sort of Uncle Ho theme park that surrounds it, which includes a Soviet-funded museum with psychedelic exhibits explaining the factors influencing the rise of communism. Despite the thronging crowds, the mausoleum and surrounding park complex are quite serene. People even manage to queue in an uncharacteristically orderly fashion, such is the power of Uncle Ho (and the bayonet-wielding military guards).
 
We recently tallied up the number of hostelries we’ve stayed in since we left home – quite a rogue’s gallery of the good, the bad and the ugly. Check out the wild climb to #55, our current digs, which thankfully fall into the “good” category.