Wednesday, 7 April 2010


Last week, I took a trip to Vietnam. It was a memorable trip as not only was it my first time in South East Asia, but I was doing it alone. It turned out to be unexpectedly nice travelling alone and I enjoyed having the freedom to be in the company of others (I met really lovely people - hello Nancy and Kendra!) and be alone when the mood took me.

Unfortunately, my camera was stolen on my very first night in Hanoi which was such a disappointment. I bought a couple of instant cameras and I think it will be kind of nice to see the pictures as they will all be surprises. I'm sorry that it might be a bit of a boring read without pictures :-(

There were loads of things I enjoyed about Vietnam:

- enjoying food is so important to me when visiting somewhere new and I ate so well in Vietnam, largely because of all the wonderful salads I ate. I realised how much I have missed a good salad since I've come to Japan. Mangoes are my favourite fruit and they were sold in abundance on the street for just a few pennies, which I took full advantage of. Every morning for breakfast, I ate a fruit salad full of fruits I had never tasted before, with natural yoghurt and honey, accompanied by a glass of Hanoi's celebrated thick, chocolatey iced coffee.
One of the best restaurants I visited was KOTO. KOTO began on the streets of Hanoi back in the 90s as a development project aimed at breaking the cycle of poverty amongst street and disadvantaged youth in Vietnam. All the waiters, waitresses and chefs are young people from the streets who complete a three year apprenticeship at KOTO. The food was beautiful and my bill was being channelled into a great cause (which made me feel good, especially given the incessant and often exhausting culture of bartering in Vietnam, which always made me feel uncomfortable)

I took a trip to Halong Bay, which is a UNESCO world heritage site about four hours outside of Hanoi. It was beautiful and eerie. The thing that intrigued me most were the floating villages. Our guide told us that there are even floating village schools!

I loved the museums in Hanoi so much and with a couple of rainy days, I managed to see them all. The fine art museum was a little devoid of creativity, as all work had to be party approved...

I saw Ho Chi Minh's embalmed body at the Mausoleum! It was one of the most morbidly interesting experiences I have ever had. He lies in a huge glass case surrounded by guards in white uniform. I queued for ages and had to be completely covered up before I was able to file past his body. It was especially fascinating to see the reaction of Vietnamese visitors; utmost reverence.

Hanoi's heart and soul is based in the Old Quarter; a district of about fifty narrow, winding streets. Each of the streets possess a unique character which is reflected in their names; Silk Street, Herb Street, Shoe Street etc. Fruit Shake Street (I suspect this is a contemporary addition) and Herb Street smelt so beautiful. It was fun to wander around the Old Quarter; it was full of cafes, curious little shops and people eating on the famous blue plastic chairs that spilled out onto the road. I also loved the tube houses that made up the Old Quarter; in the past shopkeepers were taxed according to the width of their shop front, so built houses that are very narrow in width but lengthwise, seem to go on forever.

The Old Quarter did get a bit hectic after a while; the fifty streets look so homogenous, the names looked and sounded extremely similar and I am an awful map reader...I spent a lot of time being lost. I had given up on the Old Quarter by my last two days in favour of sitting down by the lake with my book...

There were some cultural quirks that I noticed ;

Loads of men had uncomfortably long thumb nails. Generally men who drove taxis or worked as shop assistants in some of the nicer shops. I found out that it indicates wealth and status. These men are financially comfortable enough not have to resort to a life of manual labour. I kept staring at the long thumb nails for my entire trip.

The offerings that people leave at shrines. It was really bizarre to see Buddha surrounded by packets of crisps and cheap supermarket cakes. I just couldn't fathom it... Ed did the 88 Temple Walk here in Japan this Spring Holiday and said that the same happens here....

The first thing I saw upon arriving at Hanoi airport was a man defecating in the street. I saw it a couple of times....I can't be sure if it was cultural thing or if I just happened to come across several individuals who were just desperate to relieve themselves...

The culture of bartering also made me feel somewhat uncomfortable and was not something I could do. To me, the thought of bartering something down from a measly two dollars to an even measlier one, just because I was in South East Asia was kind of immoral.

I arrived back in Japan in perfect time for the cherry blossoms and had a lovely first day back with my friends under the cherry trees.

Ciaran being couth...

Shikoku chic - the man in the picture was one of Shikoku's finest; orange hair, awful tracksuit. He deserves to be featured!

This weekend, I'm cycling across the bridge with Yumi and Ed, in celebration of Yumi's 24th birthday. This morning, Ed, Yumi and I impulsively booked tickets to go to Seoul for four days in June :-)


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