Friday, 28 December 2012

With a brush in Hoi An

It has been a lovely 10 days in Hoi An and I have  been busy with my favourite Japanese Moleskin as ever. 

There more to see and do in this part of Central Vietnam than you could possibly achieve in a month let alone 10 days but I have enjoyed doing  a number of things I didn't manage last summer in our 3 day whistle stop tour.

On day one I rented a bicycle which has made such a difference to every day in this lovely region. the land is completely flat, apart from the odd bridge, so even I was able to ride for 10 or 15 kilometres without too much effort.

The landscape just outside the main town is a patchwork of tranquil paddy fields which are still ploughed by man and water buffalo and the air buzzes with dragonflies just above your head. 

The pale ochre silken waters of the estuary are dotted with all kinds of wooden boats for fishing, tourist river trips and dozens of working barges which ferry the locals from island to island.

The local people are very welcoming and are justly proud of their fascinating heritage. Hoi An first flourished in the days of the early silk trade of the 16th century and each different trading nation from Japan to France has made its mark on the towns style and culture.

On December 26th the Full Moon was celebrated. This is a time for special offerings to your ancestors and every house and shop front had a table of food and wine with candles and incense burning throughout the evening.  There is a local tradition of playing Chinese Chess and on Full Moon night the elders of the town put on traditional Vietnamese dress and play by candle light outside all the temples and ancient monuments. 

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Christmas wishes

A tiny little Santa Claus and a lotus candle
One of Hoi An's best lantern makers
It is Christmas Eve and, here in Hoi An, everyone has come out onto the streets to enjoy some special Christmas events. There is an open air concert of some traditional dancing and singing as well as some with a wonderful voice is singing some Abba hits and I confess, I was feeling a little wistful so I bought a lotus candle and floated it down the river to wish all of my friends and family a peaceful Christmas from half way across the world. 
Fireworks at the open air concert
All the lantern stalls were a blaze of colour and there was a real buzz around the town which has been rather quiet this week. I bought two lanterns to put up for 'Tet', the Vietnamese New Year celebrations in early February. 

The riverside
The streets are lit by lantern light at night

In the oldest part of town all the streets are closed to motorbikes and some to bicycles which all adds to the party atmosphere.

The night market on An Hoi Island

This is still the rainy season for this part of Central Vietnam and the town suffers from flooding. Tonight, the river actually broke its banks and I cycled through a few centimetres of water to reach the concert by the bridge. 

The largest remaining temple at My Son

Earlier today, I went to visit the ancient site of the Cham temples at My Son, about 50 kilometres from Hoi An. This religious site which is comparable to Ankor in Cambodia, was deserted by the Cham in the 1500s as the Chinese drove them south to the Mekong Delta. The whole area quickly became overgrown by jungle and lay untouched until the French rediscovered it in the 1890s.  My Son is older than Ankor by some 5-700 years and its architects used a method of mortarless brick building that repels any incursion of lichens and mould that still confounds modern day archaeologists. 

Unfortunately, this magnificent relic was mostly destroyed in 1969 by American Bombs during the Vietnam War  and now visitors have to walk amid deep bomb crators to view the 50 or more temples and monuments.

Bomb crator
It was the Germans and Italians who came into clear the site of unexploded amunition and land mines so work could begin on restoring the relics some day. 

Types of bomb that littered the site
Conservation works
 The French have extensive and detailed records of the site as they found it and the Italian government is funding some experiments to discover how they were constructed so that rebuilding can begin.

This site was established for the worship of Shiva, the three in one god who is the Creator, Conservator and Destroyer, the characteristics of all men. 

This Christmas let us wish for a more peaceful world in which we can all be more creative and conserve all the good things we have. Let there please be an end to mindless killing and destruction.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Jack Fruit

Jack Fruit lady 

I found this lady shelling Jack Fruits near a local market a couple of weeks ago. Initially I was attracted by the colours of all the fruits and flowers, the plastic stools, bucket and basket and her lovely outfit.  She was sitting working in the half shade in front of a rice merchant's shop and I began to recognise, as I sat and watched her, that she was shelling the mysterious Jack Fruit that I have seen for sale in the local supermarket where it is sold in as 'freeze fried'  fruit.

It is like eating crispy dried mango and is completely delicious.I love dried fruits but these crispy freeze-fried fruits are a delightful revelation to me. 

The huge Jack Fruits apparently grow everywhere in tropical regions but getting to the edible part requires some considerable work. I wonder why I have never seen it in the UK? 

While freeze-fried fruit is dried or dehydrated food but the process is different from traditional drying. Before the drying process begins, the fruit is frozen. It is then placed into a chamber that makes use of a vacuum to gradually extract the water content. Heat is applied in the chamber and set at a temperature that allows the frozen fruit to quickly thaw while the vacuum extracts the water. The end result is a dried fruit that retains the taste of fresh and also develops a crispy texture.


Saigon Sunset

The haze that was deposited on Saigon by super typhoon Bopha, about 6 days ago, still lingers and we are enjoying spectacular sunsets as a result.
Last night I went up to the top of the Thu Thiem Bridge to watch the sun go down and to record some video of the city and the Saigon River for you.

The Port of Saigon is a river port just like London and the Thu Thiem Bridge is the first one downstream of the docks so there is always an interesting stream of river traffic to watch. 

Dozens of workers and young lovers stop on the bridge on their way home from the city to take in the view. I  chatted to a young woman as I filmed and she proudly showed me all the sunset photos on her phone. 

The map shows the area affected by super typhoon Bopha which hit land in the southern Philippines in the region around Davao. The authorities are still trying to locate about 300 fishermen who went scuttling off to the Spratly Islands which are about two thirds of the way to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), as you can see. 

The blue line on the map outlines the disputed area of the South China Sea that China claims as their territorial waters. You can see it runs from Taiwan, declared by China as a rougue Chinese state and runs close to the territorial waters of three other countries. As recently as last Thursday, China asked Vietnam to cease its oil exploration activities in a disputed area. 

  • South China Sea has long been a bone of contention between China and several members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). China lays claim to almost the entire South China Sea including what is recognized by the U.N. as the exclusive economic zones of other neighbors, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and Brunei.   Beijing’s relations with Vietnam has grown worse in the past weeks over China’s decision to include in its revised passports an offending map, which shows Beijing staking its claim on the entire South China Sea
        • Source:

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Weather update

As I write, it is 9.30 pm and I am just about to snuggle up under the air conditioning unit with a good book. I am slowly plodding my way through Graham Greene's  'Quiet American' and savouring every paragraph. I have been dipping in and out for nearly a month now!!... pathetic really.

Anyway, as you can see it is currently 81 degrees ( feels like 87) and Saigon is dripping in the steamy wake of a storm that blew up from the Philippines and stirred up the air causing a kind of haze or harr over the city. It also got all the mosquitos excited and they have been feasting on even the toughest of natives. I, of course, am about to give up the fight......... I am constantly surrounded by citronnella candles and tea lights, moquito repelling incense and am lathered in every repelling lotion and oil you can imagine .......but still........... my legs especially look like some kind of battle ground. Ah well.

It the most effective repellent seems to be a fan...... the mozzies don't like a breeze. But they seem to be able to brave even that to dine on some delicate English flesh.

I had my first visitor from the Uk this week. It was absolutely lovely to be able to spend some time with a friend from home for a few days. I was able to show off Swinging Saigon ( as it was known in the 60s) and it all seems  more real, somehow, having shared it with someone close.

There will be more sketches and painting soon. The painting has taken an unexpected turn which I will share with you all later this week. 

Monday, 26 November 2012

Sunday afternoon in Saigon

This church is just as pink on the outside as on the inside! I have to say - I found it quiet uplifting. I wonder if they will get round to painting the benches too.
I found this lantern workshop in China town. These huge lanterns had just been made and were out in the sun to dry. Inside they were busy painting more in preparation for the new year celebrations in January.
I think you must be able to hire these for special occasions. I looks more fun than a stretch limo.

I found it almost impossible to choose which rice to buy and there were five more stalls right next door to choose from as well! I just went for the most expensive at 60p for a kilo of high grade Thai Rice .. grown in Vietnam .
This must be the most delicious lunch wagon I have seen so far. Look at the way her food is stacked in the glass case. Top left inside the case are neat towers of perfectly cooked prawns.
The two big pans had delicious soups in them . 

You take a bowl of soup and then add noodles, vegetables, herbs and condiments to your own taste. this is known as Pho ( pronounced fur) and is the most famous dish of south east Asia.
This is Ben Hoa market, a very old chinese style building down by the riverfront in China Town. You can see one of the rice stalls bottom left.
Ah, back at Mekong Merchant to write my latest blog post. This is the view from my laptop today.

This wonderful establishment has free wifi ( fairly standard for even the most basic of street cafes these days), serves delicious wines, has a big breakfast menu and makes the best scrambled eggs on toast I have ever enjoyed.
Have a good week everyone!

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

What? ..... No Seagulls?

A few days away from the bustle and heat of Saigon. I took a brown train from Ho Chi Minh City station for the one hundred mile, four hour journey to Binh Thuan. This little rail stop is about six miles from Mui Ne where I am going to spend 5 days alone with Graham Greene and my sketch pad. 

I am travelling with Viets who have a different view of personal space. What's theirs is theirs and what's yours is theirs as well. The train travels through an impossibly narrow single track corridor of dwellings,shops, barbers, wokshops, coffee shops, kitchens, bicycle repair, engine shops, bedrooms, chickens and dogs. 

After a while opening to suburbs, more space, warehouses, allotments, small holdings, a massive, massive river, factories, little local stations, graves,acres of rusting corrugated tin, brightly coloured houses, sidings, litter and rubbish everywhere, farms and plantations.

Sometimes we stop but there aren't any names on the stations. people get on but no-one gets off yet. Now rice paddies. The TV in out railway carriage is blaring ( are Viets deaf?) a selection of entertainment that is a good imitation of a Saturday night on the BBC circa 1976. Sleeping children. An old man puts in his eye drops, teenage boy picks his nose. Father nurses toddler, granny asleep with the baby, her feet on a plastic laundry basket full of food and provisions. An American veteran sits beside his Viet wife still so beautiful gazing out of the window at her homeland.

Food trolley selling hard boiled eggs, unrecognisable fruit, plastic bags of sugar cane to suck on. The lady next to me buys three eggs and a little dish of chilli salt which she offers to share with me. The Viets are so generous with their food. free bottles of water for everyone on the next trolley.

The landscape changes.Plantations of saplings growing amid raggy corn. Nick Cage in a very violent movie on the TV - Vietnamese subtitles. Hills look like slag heaps strewn with rocks and scattered with skinny trees.. Bigger hills overcast. Water buffalo in meadows each with a companion heron, cows tethered under tress, fields of dragon fruit. Nick Cage is covered in blood hurls abuse at a dolly blond in denim hot pants as the camper van they were pursuing speeds off into the distance. My fellow travellers gaze emotionless. Fruit orchards banana palms.

Arrive, A small halt straight out of a 1960's French movie. We climb down from the train all luggage being passed hand to hand. Walk across two railways lines that disappear off into an unknown distance. A girl checks my ticket and the two local taxi drivers vie for my business. No-one can tell me how far or how much it will cost we just set sail!

Wow - very swanky hotel! All the guests appear to Russian....... great.

Huge, unrippled blue pool, the sun loungers all have my name on them. Lizards on the lawn, Frangipani, Bouganvilia, dragonflies, tiny white crabs scuttle on the sand in the dusk,  shells crostle in the crannies of the breakwater rocks. Gekko chatters in the bedroom, cows trundle along the beach to wallow in lush watery meadows between the beach bars. Blue and green coracles on the beach come and go each night and dawn. Fruit seller girl with two paniers dressed, seemingly, only her smiling eyes show between her mask and the shade of her coolie hat. Luscious mangoes and spiney crimson lychees by the bunch.

NO SEAGULLS! No seabirds at all! Not a sound.  Humph.

I sit and draw the little boats.  The Russian tourists creep up behind me a peer over my shoulder, silently stealing a glance at my drawings. The fruit seller and a straggly straw hatted pearl vendor, the gardeners and the fishermen all come up to me at the front and squat down beside me just to enjoy the company for ten minutes or so, watch what I am doing and exchange a few words. they talk about me as if I am not there.......but quietly.. as if they know I am concentrating hard. Open and curious, smiling and complimentary in their simple English. Nosey like children. Uncomplicated companions with beautiful hearts.

I take a trip to the local fishing port about 3 miles away. Phan Thiet is the home of nuoc mam, the ubiquitous fish sauce that flavours the Vietnamese cuisine.  Nuoc mam is to the Viets what balsamic vinegar is to the French, butter to the English, cinnamon to Americans and sauerkraut to Germans. It is the ever present condiment of choice. It is made by fermenting anchovy-like fishes in vats for months and months and months. They catch them between August and October and the fishing fleet is vast. 

Phan Thiet estuary reminds me of old paintings of Whitby from the 1900s when sailing ships jammed together along the banks of the Esk. There are acres and acres of dark brown boats all with turquoise or peppermint green superstructures. There are no eyes on these boats. I wonder why not.  I thought all Viet boats had eyes on the bows. Humph...... no seagulls and no eyes. What's going on?

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Bats and dragons

Slightly late, I know, but here is my Halloween offering. 

This gate is on the main road and marks the entrance to Hem Dinh Binh Khanh (the Lane of Binh Khanh temple) which I pass through every day as I come and go. The reason this is my Halloween offering is for the bats that are featured each side of the main archway.  They must have some spiritual or cultural significance for this particular temple. 

It may be that bats are more common in this little neighbourhood than elsewhere. One of the joys of living chez Jo is that, during the early evening hours, bats frequently zoom through the french doors that open onto the garden, and fly through the length of the lounge and kitchen and back out again, inspecting the interior of some of the light fittings as they go. They might be looking for new roosts I guess. I just love it!!! 

The roundels of red calligraphy might be a hangover from Chinese roundels which have been adapted and now contain words, or parts of words in the western alphabet,  The three I have detailed  appear to read 'Binh Kh Ahn' .. with Og from the start of some other word perhaps.

The dragons are pretty standard features on gates of this type, along with lions dogs and other mythical creatures. I have even seen a builders yard where you can buy them. Dragons seem so cheerful and these ones are highly glazed and twinkle in the afternoon   sun. 

In Eastern Asia dragons are usually portrayed as long, scaley, serpentine creatures with four legs like a lizard or crocodile... just like the two on the gate.  In Yin and Yang terminology, the dragon is Yang to the Phoenix Yin.

The dragon symbolises potency and auspicious powers such as control over water, rainfall, hurricane and floods. The dragon is also a symbol of power, strength and good fortune.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

River life 1

Every day I return home by crossing the Thu Thiem  bridge. I look forward to seeing this view each time. Is the tide in or out? Will there be lots of boats or none? 

This scene was captured about two weeks ago just as the season was changing from the wet season to the dry. It's about 3-4pm and the watery sun is trying to burn through the humid haze that's hanging over the city. Massive sand barges are moving their daily loads up and down the river and one lonely little sampan is chugging upstream. 

In the evening this bridge provides a perfect vantage point for the city lights and courting couples gather to admire the view, followed, as ever, by an army of vendors of fruit, local hot snacks and rice dishes. 

At the far end (not the city end) of the bridge, makeshift cafes pop up every evening after dark, so people can meet their friends amongst the rubble and detritus of a  demolished neighbourhood and watch the traffic go by from the comfort of sun loungers (no less) lined up along the side of the road as if it were the beach!  I have not yet sampled this cultural delight myself but I reckon you shouldn't knock it until you've tried it! I will let you know..............

Thursday, 25 October 2012

A change in the seasons

Here is tomorrow's forecast. In the space of a week we have gone from torrential downpours to blue skies and a significant increase in temperatures.

The good thing is that the humidity has dropped. The locals seem pleased with the early onset of the 'Dry Season' that normally comes in December and love to warn Europeans about how very hot it will get by April. 

Oh flipping heck!  I feel a trip to the mountains coming on.Maybe I could sample the wines of the southern slopes in the hills of Da Lat?

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

No - NOT chrysanthemums!!!!

Vietnamese food can be absolutely delicious however, as with any cuisine in any country, you have to be careful what you eat and where you eat it. My untrained western eyes are still having difficulty spotting the difference between    the delicious, the indifferent and the disgusting when trawling my way through menus. 

I have now eaten in top restaurants, traditional street restaurants, from pavement vendors, Westernised coffee shops, Vietnamese food emporia and some of the restaurants owned (mainly by Australians I guess) that serve up a range of western delights plus their own version of some Vietnamese favourites.

Sometimes I am transported by the exotic mix of delicious textures and flavours and occasionally one bite is enough to tell me that one more bite will lead directly to the Saigon squitters or worse.  

One flavour that I have yet to acquire a taste for is the ubiquitous Nuoc Mam, a highly pungent condiment of fermented fish and sea salt that is added as liberally or a lightly as salt and pepper might be. I guess it is the Vietnamese equivalent of Anchovy paste the only difference being that it is has had en extra few months of fermentation and is used in a very wide variety of dishes.

I decided that it might be a good idea to learn more by shopping for previously unknown ingredients and by trying to cook a range of local dishes. Rick Stein to the rescue!  I was given a copy of his South East Asian cook book before starting this adventure and it was one of the first items to find a place in my packing boxes.

The first hurdle was to translate the recipes from English to Vietnamese. The second hurdle was to get at least two natives to agree on a the proper name for any of the selected ingredients. I converted the ingredients to photos to see if that would help. However, as I may have mentioned before, these dear people are not very visually literate and many of them have not yet discovered that they need glasses either.

Armed with my two A4 sheets of photos and some suggested names for the ingredients I started shopping in earnest. The dried goods would surely be the easiest so I went down to my favourite city centre store to make a start. They are getting to know me now. A young lad watches my bike and one of the young girls picks up a basket to follow me around the impossibly narrow aisles of  Phuong Ha (left). I collect this and that but am not able to find some of the more exotic things like Palm Sugar, Kaffir Lime Leaves and  turmeric root. 

At the till, I share my photo shopping list with the owner. She gets a huddle assistants around her and then dispatches them hither and thither to seek out the missing items. In due course they return one by one. Some had been digging in the store room bur others had plainly been shopping in neighbouring businesses and rushed back to re-sell them to me for a small profit. I just love their attitude and their enterprising spirit!

Next, the fresh ingredients. I need the help of Jo's housekeeper, Kim Chi, to help me navigate the local wet market armed, once again, with a photo shopping list. This time I haven't bothered with the translations since  no-one seems to be able to agree.  This market is smaller and better ventilated than the city ones so the smell of Nuoc Mam isn't so overpowering. 
Binh Khanh wet market

Like any market, this place is lively and colourful and the Vietnamese vendors are chatty and cheerful. they don't get many Western people in this local market so my arrival caused a good deal of  amusement.

Chicken components !
I start with a picture of chicken breasts. This was not instantly recognisable because this is not how the Viets buy chicken at all. The photo I had looked like a tray of breasts at Tesco in Leeds. What I was finally offered was an entire breast carcasse with the skin on - how absolutely FANTASTIC!  

I cannot remember the last time I saw breast with skin let alone attached to the bone...........and they were enormous. This carcasse was a big as some small turkeys. This would be perfect for making the stock for my Pho. See here some of the other delights the chicken lady had on offer.

 One of my other main ingredients was prawns. We visited a delightful woman who had two trays of different prawns and some squid on the side. 

There was a bit of a cafuffle while we sorted out the price and the number of prawns I required because somewhere in the translation she thought I asked for 12 kilos - a shock she had to share with neighbouring stall holders!!!  

Anyway, I finally selected the 12 prawns I needed and she then meticulously topped and peeled each one not forgetting to ask me if I would like the eggs she found in some of the females.

We left the market laden with at least a dozen carrier bags of all kinds of ingredients. The most difficult one to buy turned out to be one of the most common of things. No-one seemed to understand my photo of coriander. 

One guy, who spoke quite good English thought he knew what it was and asked me to wait while he went in search of a particular stall holder who had already packed up for the day. 

He dragged him out of his hammock, got him to unlock his cold store and finally they proudly emerged with a large bunch of yellow chrysanthemums! Maybe, now,you can begin to see  my problem!!

Friday, 5 October 2012

Sunday sketching

I went sketching with a fellow student last Sunday and we have decided to make it a regular date. Here is my first local sketch. these boats are so characteristic of Vietnam. The whole family probably lives aboard and the open area at the back serves as living room, kitchen, bathroom, workshop and fishing deck.  In the background you can see the outline of the Bitexco Tower that dominates the new skyline of Saigon. In the middle there is a typical row of makeshift homes, coffee shops, engine repair shops, etc that back onto the river.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Biker babe

It's never too late to become a biker. I shied away from the nifty fifties and the naughty nineties, and anything bigger just frightens me a little. I have gone for the Asama, eco-friendly, silent, electric bicycle.  I have no idea what the top speed is - there's no speedo but it does have a battery meter, a big headlight, 45 kilometre range, a practical basket on the front and room for a passenger on the back.

Jo came with me to buy it from the dealership in the centre of the city and instantly, I became one of the roaring hoards of bikers on the streets of Saigon. It's not nearly as bad as it looks. You just have to keep looking forward and go when it's your turn or when you can fight your way through!  

I also have all the necessary accessories; a helmet with visor, a full length cape for rain storms and two face masks to protect my face from the muck and save my lungs from the fumes!  Today, I was able to follow Jo back home through the traffic. Tomorrow, I will be on my own on my first journey to college! It's brilliant! 

Look out Vietnam, I'm mobile now!

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Sounds of a calm evening

Tonight is still and warm.  A breeze is blowing through the house and, sitting in my upstairs window I can hear such a variety of foreign sounds.

The rhythmic chanting and occasional gong ringing at the local temple wafts through the moist warmth.

From the high street just a hundred metres away or so, the perpetual burrr of moped and bikes is drowned out, every 15 minutes or so by the distinctive warbling horn of the buses as they warn bikers to make way. 

In the background, the constant chattering of the cicadas and crickets in the darkness of the undergrowth.

A lone swimmer sploshed into the swimming pool and almost silently glides up and down illuminated only by a single yellow light lifting a streak of turquoise tiling out of the gloom below me.

Children are playing and laughing behind the privacy of a bamboo blind and in my room the fan whirrs to and fro and grinds a little as it returns from the farthest arc.

An impatient knock at my door tells me Chloe Mai is home!

Number 46

Isn't this brilliant! This little bus pulled in to the buss station while I was waiting for the 88 the other day. It has to be the smallest bus I have ever seen.  

According to my bus route map, it serves just one little district to the south of the city - like, for example Armley. It looks like a district that may have been slightly isolated by the building of all the new bridges that now fly across the network of rivers and canals that run through and around Saigon.

the No. 46 doesn't carry the same livery as the rest of the buses ( two tone green as you can see) so maybe it is an independent service.  Anyway, about a dozen people squeezed into the back  and off they set!