Monthly Archives: June 2012

My Alternative London Day Out

In the last 14 days, I have seen and done quite a lot. I stayed in Rochester, Essex and Cumbria, with day trips to London, Canterbury, Cambridge, the lakes and villages around Cumbria (Keswick, Cockermouth, Whitehaven and Penrith to name a few) and other towns in Essex. And today I had my last day in London. It was probably my favorite day, because I behaved less like a tourist and I wandered and discovered things to do and see with only slight direction. I wanted to go to Brick Lane and spitalfields market, maybe see a matinee of a musical, but just decided to see how I went.

After training to London, my day began with a visit to the British Library, near Kings Cross. It is not that beautiful a building, especially in comparison to the newly restored St Pancras Hotel next door, with gorgeous gothic brick architecture. However they had an exhibition on about English literature and the representation of English landscape throughout the years. It was actually one of the best things I have seen. The exhibition moved from rural dreams of the countryside to the dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution in the 18th century, then to wild moors an heaths to the city and London itself, with the last part covering the lakes, waterways and rivers of Britain. It looked at how writers have been inspired by the landscape and have in turn influenced it.

They had old 14th century books, and a 10th century book of Old English Poetry, one of four books of such poetry left in the world. They also had John Lennon’s original handwritten draft “In My Life” lyrics. Verses were crossed out, and upon listening to the recording I discovered only the first verse out of 6 made it in the final song! The 2nd verse was actually about Penny Lane, but funnily enough the verse doesn’t appear in that song either. They had the original manuscript for the first Harry Potter novel, alongside a painting done by JRR Tolkein himself of “The hill: Hobbiton across the water” done in 1937. I learnt that the first use of the word sarcasm was in a 1579 poem, “The Shepherds Calendar” by Edmund Spenser, and that “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” was written after a dream, but the manuscript was burnt as his wife was disturbed and worried by it. He rewrote it twice over 6 weeks, and the original was much more sexual than the end product was.

Also on display was a letter from Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes) to his mother, outlining his plans for a new house in Surrey. They had Pygmalion with handwritten revisions by George Bernard Shaw recommending the Cockney pronunciation for Eliza Doolittle. Close to my heart, due to having to study it in high school in intense detail, was an illustrated Wuthering Heights. Turns out that poems she wrote from 1844 to 1848 formed the basis for Wuthering Heights. They had the book of poems on display, but her handwriting was so small I couldn’t read any! And finally, they had a pictorial map of England and Wales as some form of boat game. Each county was a numbered spot, and players had to do certain things depending where they landed. If you landed on #41, a coal mine, you had to stop whole other players drew once, and “if he chooses to put on a dirty flannel frock, may descend in a bucket, an view the works”.

After the library, I took the tube to east London, to walk around Brick Lane, Spitalfield Market and Shoreditch. I never made it to Spitalfields as I had too much else to do walking around exploring. East London reminds me so much of Wellington and Melbourne. I felt right at home, amongst vintage clothes stores, cute little cafes, guys in colored skinny jeans and girls wearing bowties. However, unlike Wellington where the key to being alternative also seems to be to snob those who aren’t, and be ‘too cool’, I felt so at home and met the most lovely people. People were friendly, chatty and warm. There are so many amazing shops around Brick Lane, including Blitz, the largest vintage clothes store in London. There are small galleries hidden down alleys, alongside beautiful street art. Some of it was just breathtaking, and I walked down lots of side streets hunting for street art. This girl I met told me about a famous artist, Pure Evil, whose signature is a bunny rabbit. I sought out his gallery but sadly it was closed. Next time.

I also did like the locals do, and stood in a 10 person line for a burger at this cafe off Brick Lane. It was the best burger I have had in ages, even though it was a vegetarian aubergine and halloumi burger! Even here, friendliness trumped alternative hipster snobbery, and I sat with a local called Steve who was modeling for a photography course that afternoon. He actually thought I was a teacher on the course, due to my DSLR on my shoulder. After lunch I stumbled upon the pop up mall, that provided the idea for the Christchurch city pop up mall after the earthquakes. There was a lawsuit over it, with the London mall developers claiming that two of the developers in Christchurch stole their intellectual property. I actually have to agree with the Glassons’ lawyer and admit it looks nothing like the Christchurch one, you wouldn’t even know it was made out of containers!

Round the corner from the mall, I was given a free beer and invited to an art gallery exhibition, more street art but in a gallery rather than on buildings. They were all these boxes and other containers, with an artist at work outside spray painting designs on a flattened box. Turns out he won a street art competition that year, and he is brilliant at it. They got him involved in the exhibition before he won, so are even more stoked now that he has won!

My east London stint ended when I found myself so far away from the Spitalfields market I tried to find my way there, only to get distracted by London bridge being raised for some official looking ships. That then led me to Soho, where I hunted down a cafe called “Flat White”, started by New Zealanders with an aim of introducing drinkable coffee to England. Sadly my trim flat white tastes bitter, but at least the fern on top was pretty. And then of course, because I was in the area, I finished my day off with window shopping on Carnaby Street and Oxford Street. A pretty non touristy day, and I loved it. I felt like I was just enjoying a day off work, going shopping, getting lunch, going to galleries and seeing (although today I was making) friends. One of the girls at the street art exhibition asked if I was considering moving to London, and today has actually made me consider it!

Today was the perfect way to say goodbye to the city, yet it still left me wanting more! It was also so beautiful and warm, and made me think of how Wellington is so great on a nice sunny day, England is the same, it just took 2 weeks to get a day like that! It also helped me get used to warmth again, as on Thursday it is back to Asia and 30+ degrees Celsius weather. Hopefully it isn’t too much a shock to the system!


The Only Way is Essex

English countryside. Rolling meadows. Zebra houses. Old local village shops. Tea and scones. Who needs fake tans and the Sugar Hut? This is my Essex. The real Essex.

CoggeshallCoggeshallCoggeshallFrom when my Dad was a boy, in Great DunmowCoggeshallCoggeshallCoggeshallCoggeshallCoggeshall

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Hoi An, the Tailor Capital of Vietnam

Before Hoi An, El and I were averaging 2 nights per destination, fitting as much in as humanly possible. Hoi An was meant to be 3 days, a relatively long period of time when you consider we only spent 1 day in Hue. I had then decided on an overnight bus (11 hours) to Mui Ne/Nha Trang, for 3 days, and then overnight train to Ho Chi Minh City. However, because Hoi An was such a nice peaceful place and we could lounge by the pool and beach, and because I didn’t fancy another two nights on public transport, I decided to extend our stay and booked a Jetstar flight direct from Danang (45 minutes away) to HCMC. In retrospect, I wish we had ventured to Danang for a night or two rather than spent the whole time in Hoi An, as it does look like quite a cool place. Next trip!

Tourists come to Hoi An mainly for the clothes. Hoi An has tailor shop after tailor shop, all with manikins out front wearing various outfits, trying to entice you inside. Tailor shops are everywhere, even in the markets by the riverfront. It is a rather overwhelming experience really. Far too many competing stores. How do you even begin to choose!? I decided against the well known Lonely Planet recommended stores, and decided on a shop at 48 Tran Hung Dao street called “SU”. The owner was really nice and lovely. The clothes on display were well done, they had double hems, invisible zippers and were all shaped quite well.

The process of getting clothes made in Hoi An goes somewhat like this: Presented with numerous catalogs. Look through catalogs. Stick post-it notes on pages you like. Decide that is enough. Show them the catalogs. Look at fabric. Choose fabric. Motorbike to another store to look at fabric. Choose more fabric. Return to tailor shop. Be measured. Be measured again. And again. Be measured for every individual piece of clothing, rather than just measurements in general. Sit down and negotiate a price. Pay a deposit. Come in 24 hours later for a fitting. (I know, 24 hours, to make my 8 items). Make adjustments. Another fitting. Hope that it all works well. Pay. Be happy (or so we hope. See my tips on getting clothes tailored).

I decided upon a 3 piece suit, 2 work dresses, a skirt, and a more playful party dress. We had 3 fittings, because we had enough time, and because I make clothes myself so know what to look for in terms of hems, zippers, finishings and how the seams line up. Apart from one dress, where I hope the fabric will soften after washing in order for the neck to fall how I want it to, I am incredibly happy with my orders. I never wear pants – be jeans, trousers, leggings, whatever – and I loved my suit pants. I got two more pairs made, in navy and black! I loved the dresses, and the top actually turned out really well, despite being a last minute decision. The suit is beautiful, and some of my dresses look like they cost $200, when in fact I only paid $50.

Apart from having clothes made, we spent quite a lot of time at the beach and exploring the town. I find it sad when people go to Hoi An only for tailoring, spending just enough time there to order clothes and fit in a single fitting before moving on. The town is so beautiful and calm. It is quiet and is a great city to explore on foot or by bike. The old town area has beautiful lanterns at night along the river, a night market selling souvenirs, and so many restaurants and lounge bars. Our hotel had free bicycles so we biked to the beach in the morning, back for lunch, and all around. Luckily, bicycling was recommended by my doctor as therapy for patella-femoral syndrome, so I was able to bike and feel like it was helping my knee, instead of injuring it further.

Hoi An is very quiet compared to Hanoi and HCMC, and even compared to Hue. People are much more relaxed. However, it is still a big foreign city, which you tend to forget when you feel comfortable. Bags still get snatched, and you still don’t want to walk the streets by yourself late at night. I felt completely safe and secure in the city until one night when El disappeared and I was left in town at 2:30am by myself. At that point, biking back to the hotel, I realized how dark the streets were and how sketchy the situation was. Luckily I biked quickly and with purpose, and got back to the hotel safe and sound. But it did make me worry. You never want to be by yourself in a foreign city, especially as a Western tourist. Whether you have lots of money or not, you are viewed as being rich. Always have to be careful.

We had some fantastic food in Hoi An, partly due to our cooking class with Van, but also because of the abundance of local Vietnamese restaurants serving up Hoi An specialties. White rose, cau lau and mi quang are all local dishes. White rose is basically shrimp dumplings, but with more dumpling than shrimp. Cau lau is a noodle dish with pork, herbs and fried noodle chips on top, with a really delicious 5 spice sauce (which the pork is cooked in) on top. And mi quang, I sadly never had a chance to try, is a vegetarian noodle dish.

White Rose

Apart from the food, there are two gorgeous beaches, one to the north and one to the east. Out of the two beaches, An Bang was probably my favorite. It is the more local beach, north of Hoi An but closer to our hotel. It has only 5-6 restaurants on it and one morning we were the only tourists there. There is a bit of a scam to the lounge chairs on the beach though – they are free, as long as you buy a meal. If you don’t, they are 30,000. They don’t tell you this upfront though, they say ‘free free!’. So make sure it is actually free, and you don’t have to buy anything. Even if you spend all day drinking there, that doesn’t allow you to sit for free. So at An Bang, we refused to give in and set up our towels on the sand. On our second to last day though, we discovered La Plage, a French restaurant and bar, where we could lounge all day on their chairs, even if we only bought a 10,000 dong water (50 cents). I also discovered this little roadside stall selling fried goods, including donuts!!! It was this amazing greasy coconut filled donut, amongst other fried treats (whole fried crab as well!).

The best meal we had was at Bale Well, a restaurant similar to the one in Hue, where you are served a huge variety of plates, and you make your own rice paper rolls. Bale Well was busy with locals and tourists alike, and we got the last table available. We were presented with rice paper, herbs, a kim chi type dish, dipping sauce, pork satay skewers and sausage skewers. And shortly after, we were presented with fried spring rolls and omelets. Which, brilliantly, you put in the spring roll!! Our waitress was incredibly friendly, and in showing us exactly how to do everything, she wrapped up a spring roll, dipped it in the sauce, and fed me!! Only in Vietnam.

Sadly I write this post already having left Vietnam. I was in Ho Chi Minh for 4 1/2 days, with the plan to meet Andy and venture into the Mekong Delta. However things don’t always go to plan, and this turn of events means I am in Changi Airport in Singapore, waiting for my 11pm flight to Frankfurt, and then to London. England will be incredibly different from my last 35 days. Instead of staying in hostels, I will be staying with family, and catching up with relatives I have not seen since I was younger. I am actually really looking forward to it, and so thankful that it was easy enough to change my round the world ticket and book new flights, to make sure I can still go visit everyone. I still have a few Vietnam posts to put up, so a few more Asia related posts will still come, however so will some photos of English countryside, and bustling London. Gotta mix it up a bit.

Reflections on anti-American sentiment in Ho Chi Minh

There is surprisingly quite a lot of negative American sentiment in Ho Chi Minh (“HCMC”). I have noticed this even without visiting the War Remnants Museum, a museum that (according to the Lonely Planet) highlights atrocities carried out by Americans against the Vietnamese, without any mention of atrocities carried out by North Vietnamese against the South Vietnamese or against the Americans. I guess I expected it a little bit. However I hadn’t experienced any anti-American sentiment in our last 13 days of Vietnam. So I found it a bit weird to then find it in our final destination. One reason I wanted to visit Vietnam was to learn more about the Vietnam War. To see the place it happened, to understand it better, and see a different perspective.

Not only do the attractions seem a bit anti American, they also seem to be pro-war, pro-revolution or pro-reunification, whichever term you prefer. In my view, it was still a war. Doesn’t matter who was involved or what the aims were. Sides fought against one another. People died. There was a victor. It was a war.

Because of the war, the Cu Chi Tunnels are a major tourist attraction in HCMC. The tunnels, about 50-70km outside of HCMC, allowed the Viet Cong to control a large area between the border of Cambodia and HCMC. It is a large area of underground tunnels, some 20 meters below ground. These were not mere tunnels for transport, rather there were multiple floors, and the rooms included schools, churches, hospitals, weapons storerooms and kitchens. They had multiple hidden entrances, and these hidden entrances allowed the Viet Cong to attack American troops by surprise, and quickly jump back in their hole again and disappear. They had wooden trapdoors that were camouflaged or booby-trapped, and hidden underwater entrances from the rivers. It was all rather clever, and despite the US establishing a base camp nearby, the tunnels eluded the US troops for months. People lived underground for months at a time, and only about 6,000 of the 16,000 soldiers who fought in the tunnels survived.

Unlike other war sites I have visited, such as the S-21 genocide museum and the killing fields in Phnom Penh, the museum seemed to almost celebrate the war. Applaud it. Be proud of it. It was like a theme park, minus the roller coasters. It didn’t make you feel disgusted with what happened, or ashamed that it could be allowed to happen. In Phnom Penh I could not fathom how people could do such atrocities to their own people. To murder children and babies by throwing them against a tree. To torture people to try to get confessions. And to work people to death in the fields. At the Cu Chi Tunnels, the only part that I personally found sickening was the traps set for American soldiers, more because I hate blood and pain, and the hook needles on the traps made me squirm.

The visit starts with a rather upbeat propaganda video. It is black and white, lots of old footage, but with lively music in the background. It shows smiling children and women, and pictures of beautiful Cu Chi, with a commentary: Cu Chi, such a peaceful beautiful destination that didn’t want war. Cu Chi, known for its plentiful fruit, beautiful forests, and innocent young children. Cu Chi, a popular weekend destination and picnic spot. Cu Chi, invaded by Americans, who forced war upon it. Americans, who “like a bunch of crazy devils, shot women and children, cows and ducks, the ground and trees”. I swear, that is a quote directly from the movie, or as close to the quote as I can remember. Cu Chi has been presented with numerous awards, and many villages have been declared “heroic villages”. The government has since given awards to children soldiers for killing Americans, with an “American Killer” award. Further, the tour guide talks about how the Viet Cong used to climb in tiny holes to hide in after shooting at US troops. “Anyone want to have a go? Come on it’s fun!” There was also an old US tank, that we were told to pose next to or even climb on top of for photos. And, even weirder, “Here are the guns we used against American soldiers. Anyone want to shoot one? Only $1 per bullet!”.

Beginning to see how it feels like they almost celebrate the war…? Even at the reunification palace, the tour guide and photo captions said how the North “liberated” the South or “reunified” the two halves of the country. North Vietnam was a bringer of peace. Never a bringer of destruction. The Palace itself was beautiful and the free tour provided quite a lot of history on Vietnam and its politics. In 1868, a house was on the site, for the French Governor-General of Cochinchina. Once the French left, it became the home of the South Vietnamese President. However, he was unpopular, and his own air force bombed the palace in 1962 in an attempt to kill him. A new palace had to be built, which was completed in 1966, however the President was killed by his own troops 3 years prior.The new building became “Independence Palace” and was home to the next President, before he had to give up power at the end of the Vietnam War.

The “end of the war” happened at the Palace on April 30 1975 when two big tanks drove through the gates, demanding that the President surrender. He did. Vietnam was one again. A communist state. I actually enjoyed the palace visit, as the history was nice and the rooms and furnishings beautiful. We even got to go to the bomb shelter and president’s war room beneath the palace! Likewise, I enjoyed the Cu Chi Tunnels. It weirdly made me want to be more vocal about being an American. I often travel Asia on my British passport, but now I want to travel on my American one, or at least say I am from the States, rather than NZ. I don’t know why. Maybe it is because I fired my first gun today. An AK47. Walking around the tunnel grounds you could hear the shots in the background. I knew I wanted a go. They have a huge shooting range with big posters of animals to aim at. There are 6 guns to choose from, 2 of which are machine guns. Bullets are either 20,000 dong each ($1) or 35,000 dong each ($1.75) depending on the gun you choose. You have to buy a minimum of 10 bullets, so overall it cost me $17.50.

It wasn’t El’s piece of cake, therefore I have no photos of me with my gun or with the earmuffs on, as she didn’t want any part in it. But personally, it was actually quite fun. Not in an “I am turning into a gun person” type fun, but just a cool, new, different experience. It de-stressed me. Took a load off my shoulders. I felt better afterwards. Running is my stress relief, but as I can’t run currently, this did the trick for me. I was shown exactly how to hold it. I was really worried about firing it the first time – whether if I held my head by the gun, it would kick back and hit my cheek, so I kind of held myself far away from it until I got a feel from it. After it didn’t really kick back much, I got more into it and actually tried to aim (tried being the operative word) at the targets. Before I knew it, I was out of bullets, and headed back to meet the rest of the group.

Following this, we got the chance to climb down into tunnels. These tunnels are not legitimate ones, they are tourist made. Which means they are 80cm wide and 120cm high. So still quite small, but larger than what they used. After two flights of stairs, we were truly underground, in a small smooth rounded passageway. Some crawled, I shuffled, and we ventured forward. The one piece of advice I can give is that if you are in a large group, leave a bit of a gap between you and the person in front. Because people stop or slow down, and then you are stuck in a very hot and very dark claustrophobic tunnel. So just leave a bit of room so if the person in front of you stops, you don’t stop suddenly too.

It was a very interesting experience. Very odd, due to the almost celebratory atmosphere, but interesting nonetheless. Tomorrow, I will be visiting the War Remnants Museum, so will see how slanted against America the museum is. The interesting thing is that a lot of photos and parts of the exhibition at the museum were actually donated by the US government. So they seem willing to open up about exactly what happened. The Vietnamese government doesn’t seem willing. I read in Hanoi how US prisoners of war were made to sign forms saying they were treated well whilst being held during the war, when in fact they were tortured and depraved. Vietnam to this day still denies that the US troops held prisoner were treated poorly in any way. Politics…