53 Articles and Red Flanegan

img_2370My health has been 45% most of my journey this past three months. Dodged with chronic tonsillitis, heavy chest infection, sneezing and coughing. Despite numerous trips to the doctor and hospital for an Endoscopy, steroid nasal spray, saltwater sinus wash, Codeine, Antihystamenes,  not much has changed except my ability to continue to get up each day and find the strength to leave the flat.

Month three and things have gone to plan to a degree, some of the major pre Vietnam

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Ben Thanh Market

ideas have fallen to the wayside, but generally the “plan” has materialised enough for me to make decisions and take action. As I write, I am sitting outside one of Saigons major  tourist (local) markets. Ben Thanh Market where you can purchase anything from frogs to bed linen. Back in 2012 this market was my haven and I loved wandering the limitless alleyways to see what I could find. Now, I dash in purposefully armed with photos of what I am looking for and no waivering eyes. “madame what you looking for” – for those that have never been, the trick is to know where the cold coconut water is and how to negotiate that $15 fan which is worth $1.

So mostly consideration for my health has been my driving factor as to what I do and provides an excuse to travel with my base being in Saigon. The need for fresh air resulted in a trip that I planned and executed 5 minutes after I got out of bed. I wanted to do a river cruise, get some air and see river life and the city from a different perspective.

I had heard about a fast ferry that you can hop on and come back in a day. I didn’t want to do a tourist Mekong Delta tour – I wanted the luxury of no commitment and no coconut candy to which I am addicted. Greenlines offered the ideal trip. I made my way to the ferry terminal with a small backpack (undies, toothbrush and sarong just in case I wanted to stay overnight) and booked the 10am fast ferry.  Ticket purchased with return ticket for 4pm that day I waited on the dock. It’s a 2 hour journey (although their website says 90 minutes). The ferry is modern, clean and air-conditioned with entertainment I didn’t watch as I was out on the deck facing the wind and river spray, whilst the sick bags were distributed inside. Although you are allocated a ‘seat’ – number dependent you can choose where you sit. The journey s pretty smooth for the record. I can’t vouch for bad weather – but either way you are on the river most of the trip.The WiFi is also excellent.

 

 

The trip was wonderful and you get to watch the scenery of Saigon’s large city skyline dissipate into mangroves and jungle. You follow the river all the way to Vung Tau and disembark on a tropical beach. As I had no idea as to what I was going to do, I headed straight for a Cafe Den on the water to plan my next move. Not before I met Quang the 55-year-old Grab Xe Om ( pronounced sah omh) who convinced me to go with him. So finishing my coffee and deciding to stay over night, I picked The Green Hotel on Back Beach. Found Quang ( I don’t think he ever took his eyes off me to be honest) swung my leg over and off we went. I love using Xe Om (motor taxi in Vietnam) you get to see things and if you are lucky you get to meet Quang. Delivered safely at Hotel at half the price of online booking – I had a seaview room, with balcony and breakfast thrown in for about $46 AUD. You can get much cheaper but as I say – my health was the point of the exercise.

 

I have learnt to pack really light, in this case literally a small Sea to Summit backpack that folds up to the size of a passionfruit. Only essentials and provides hassle free travelling and exploring. I was tired and burnt after the two-hour trip so found lunch and walked the beach. I didn’t make it to Long Tan – I will do that one day but it was to take more time than I had so it was great to meet an Ex Vet on the wharf the next day. Red Flanegan had been staying at Hotel 95 near Belly’s Bar which apparently is an Australian institution. I spoke to Red for some time and he came from Perth and did the trip once every year. I didn’t take a photo with him, it seemed disrespectful, although I am sure he would have relished it.

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Red told me a story about about an Australian solider and Vietnamese woman and an unplanned pregnancy. Nothing unusual in that, but there is more to this story and has left me with another avenue to follow. I will return to Vung Tau – I liked it, I really liked it. The food was different to Saigon and the chilled beach atmosphere 2 hours from HCMC.  Red told me to visit Belly’s Bar where he assured me a meat pie and sausage roll could be purchased. As we stood chatting quietly on the wharf he said to me, you must come back here, I explained that I had not really packed for longer than an over night stay. Red said “53 articles” hey? I looked at him and he said ” a pack of cards and a toothbrush” – the history and horror he had seen was in his eyes. I’ll never forget you Red Flanagen and yes I will get to Belly’s bar one day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meeting the Queen & Vespa Riding Dogs

 

Despite the idea of travelling long term and its romantic connotations, I needed a break.

I booked a week in Danang (north of HCMC) – beach side hotel, with infinity pool. I have been sick pretty much the last 3 months and I needed a reprieve from noise and pollution.  I called upon a local travel agent to book flight and train ( fly up and train back) to Danang. I was trying to be budget savvy and was originally going to train up and back. Upon investigating the costs, it was in fact only $10AUD dearer to fly both ways. Still, I thought I want to see the country side and 18 hours on the train seemed the ideal way to do this. How wrong could I have been.  Lurking in the back of my mind I knew there was no double-decker trains here, I am going to put it down to heat and exhaustion. Packed a small carry on and my mission to visit Golden Bridge  and cable car I took off.  An hours pleasant flight to Danang, I was at my hotel within 20 minutes of landing. The hotel I stayed deserves special mention, Adamo Hotel who’s service ( low season) was exemplary. They upgraded me to a beach side view – full length views of the entire beach .. they looked after me well and the food (breakfast buffet) was very good with lots of variety.

 

 

 

Even though it was rainy season I managed to get plenty of beach time right outside the hotel. Two days later I discovered the underground walkway to the beach rather than trying to cross the road, which in many respects was harder than Saigon due to trucks and tourist buses the size of small townships. (see road in image above). I rented daily a beach lounge at 20,000VND  about $2 AUD and made friends with the locals who brought me Espresso coffee and cold coconuts. I was made aware that street sellers were not welcome and the staff did a good job of keeping them at bay. There is only so many pairs of sunglasses you can wear! Swim between the flags is an unknown concept in this country, mostly ignored by Japanese, Chinese and Koreans. It says alot about Bondi Rescue in Australia – the rip is strong, the waves are not to be trifled with and I am a competent swimmer and it buggered me out totally.

Behind the hotel I discovered a plethora of eateries, very hip and groove bars and quite a bit of good HSH. I went to the wrong bar one night (whatever that means) and ordering a cold Saigon Special noted a chicken sitting on a bar stool ….quite at home and I thought to myself that’s odd – but lets face it, nothing here is bizarre anymore – you learn to expect and see oddities on a daily basis. As I watched her (the chicken) she seemed to be waiting for something ? Then on que a nun appears from nowhere and bundles the chicken in her arms and walks off with her. To this day I wonder what that was about. Chicken day care?

 

 

 

I booked a tour with the hotel to visit Sun World (AKA Wally World) and also visit the newly opened Golden Bridge and Cable Car. I wasn’t too fussed about going to Sun World per se but despite my reservations it was in fact pretty amusing and provided some of the best food I have eaten since being in Vietnam. I booked a tour that included a buffet lunch. Met some incredibly interesting people from all over the world and spent the majority of my afternoon taking photos and people watching. The bridge itself is an engineering feat and I am so glad I made the effort to go. What was not included in the tour was the wax museum. With my sense of macabre I couldn’t not go in, so for an extra 100,000VND I entered the very quiet exhibition. Travelling solo means lots of selfies but the crown of the afternoon ( no pun intended) was Queen Elizabeth.

 

 

 

A lovely week spent in Danang, I am looking to relocate here, as not only do I like the “air” the “beach” but the nightlife is pretty cool and it’s cooler weather wise too.  A couple of work meetings and then it was time to head home to Saigon. Via the train.

Never, ever again will I do this trip ..I have caught a train a total of 3 times in Vietnam now and this trip was by far the worst. When I say worst, I mean a non working air-conditioner, screaming babies, top bunk ( yes yes I got it wrong), blocked stinking toilet kind of worst. At least this time I was prepared with snacks,water, headphones and easily accessible toothbrush etc. The linen was still left over from the previous 18 hour journey and all in all, along with the loud Vietnamese music played on cue at 5 am and constant interruptions by well-meaning train staff to purchase what I can only guess was boiled eggs – nope, never again. I have now done the entire east coast of this fabulous country by train – I no longer need the train experience nor the non romantic connotations of actually getting work done whilst enjoying the 18 hour solitude.

 

 

So a couple of items off the bucket list. I am hoping next week I can get to PuLuong RiceRoad Homestay which sits between Ho Chi Minh City and Can Tho. I’ll be booking this myself ! I am noticing things about myself now that were probably always there about my organising ability, and to really trust your instinct. Being self sufficient (as much as you can) in a non native tongue country takes its toll, but for me, half the fun is the charades you have to play to get your message across. Try explaining “Stapler” via a game of charades. Happy Days…

Why? and other oddities

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I am nearing my first VISA run – you need to leave the country every three months. I know many expats find this tiresome, I actually love the opportunity to plan my “where to next” – and for me this November I have narrowed it down to Cambodia (obvious choice) but I did not get to spend a lot of time when last there in 2017. The other has been on my bucket list for years, Kota Kinabalu. So I am researching in earnest. Map below will provide some geographical context. There is a mountain walk there I’d like to do – I’ll investigate the relative safety of that before I decide.

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Next week I travel to Danang –  I opted for the overnight train to save some dollars. Surprised to find that flying both ways was in fact only $10AUD more than taking the train. I will fly up and train back during the day and use a four berth sleeper. It’s a great way to see the country side and let’s face who doesn’t like a clickity clack.

I also opted for the top level thinking the view of the country would be better. As with everything here, this could be the worst mistake of my life, you share a 4 berth with strangers and hope like hell your snoring or theirs doesn’t keep everyone awake! Still having done a similar trip to Sapa I now know to take my own esky with beer and snacks. see Meeting the Queen & Vespa Riding Dogs  The plan is to also go to Ba Na Hills and do the cable car and most importantly Golden Bridge (opened in June)

The past few weeks I have discovered Farmers Union yoghurt, which did more for my homesickness than my throat. Moved to another flat, helped a friend relocate to another country and have continued to search for some work. As time goes by I think the need to start an online business / income is fast approaching. I like this digital nomad life and although I missing a cup of tea ( Australian style) I dropped by the InterContinental Hotel yesterday for breakfast. I needed an Earl Grey.

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Why?  as you walk the streets here, the locals start to accept you are not a “tourist” but someone who is living here (albeit short or long time) and the conversation subtly shifts to but “Why?” – Madam you want massage ? no, thank you …But Why? the responses can be long or short or non existent. Like the cyclo driver who pulled up next to me outside the statue of Ho Chi Minh – his English was good, good enough to have a five-minute conversation. The usual – “where you from?”” what do you do?” followed by “why you not want me to take you to your flat?”… anyway you get the picture. Some days I just get home and collapse it’s exhausting. Wit, humour and knowledge does not necessarily equate in another language. This changes your mindset too I have noticed, you start to think differentlly as a result, refuge to be found with other expats, even a brief encounter with an Aussie at the ATM. I am already helping new comers.

The gentle art of not giving a Phuc (sic)

img_1492If Vietnam has taught me one lesson it is this, whatever happened yesterday has no bearing on what will happen today. I have learnt a few life lessons – well, when I say learnt, more of an “A ha” moment – I now know to always trust my gut instinct and actually ACT on it. Easier said than done sometimes, but I know this, if you dig deep enough you already know the answer, the challenge is self acceptance and to follow your own values and core boundaries.

Language barriers aside, you can still get a feel for a place and know whether you should stay or make a bee line for the door. They say the first six months are the hardest, at what point you wake up and realise your living the ‘dream’ I don’t know. I am pretty sure I am on the right path and I just need to keep moving slowly along, like learning to walk in “heels” on a wet Saigon pavement at night holding an umbrella.

I am pleased with my progress to date.  I am crossing the roads like a pro now, always mindful of that bike launching in from the right, and the cyclo driver who wants to take you everywhere “I live here” – normally does the trick. I have been ripped off, grabbed in markets and asked  why I am here and why I don’t I want a massage many times.

I have learnt that you must carry an umbrella, you must have small denominations, carry toilet tissue and despite the kind demeanour of the people, my legendary don’t mess with me look does have to be put in to effect at times. I have learnt not to use my mobile whilst deciphering Google maps whilst standing on a street near the road (motorbike snatches) and that if you smile and laugh, you can and do get through most things.

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I have been looked after on the way to hospital by a caring taxi driver when at deaths door, helped to order food when I was clearly out of my depth, had english translators brought in to assist.  I have found caring ex-pats who have been here for a short time and a long time. Ready to listen and to help where necessary.

As I write the rain pours down and life goes on. Next week marks two months and yet another accommodation move. The time has gone quickly, yet so much has happened already.

 

 

Regional Travel, Food and other substances …

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No plastic here

I love the regional flights in Vietnam, it is a normal daily occurrence for many I have discovered in this wonderful city. “Carry on” luggage helps and makes it pretty much pain free. They are cheap and so far reliable. My last domestic trip to Hanoi booked at the last minute. The thing I do notice on these internal trips whether train or plane, is the kindness afforded by the locals. As a solo traveller, I must at times look totally bewildered and out of place. On more than one occasion I have been offered food on these transit journeys. Food, the universal language and the reason for The Food Manifesto.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A train ride from Sapa last year was taken over the Khmer New Year and seats on the train were at a premium. My seat although facing backwards was one of the last available and for many hours we rocked along the tracks with an assortment of children, families and luggage. The only westerner on the train I was eventually taken pity on by a lovely family who offered green mango and salt. At least I think that was what is was, I gratefully took her offering and munched through it until my destination. There was a food cart on the train but my stomach was not up to the menu and if I was being honest my knowedge of Dong ( Vietnamese currency).

Similarly the trip to Hanoi last weekend -my return flight a young lady 3 seats across offered me a bunch of Longan fruit ( not pictured here ) she passed the fruit and rubbish bag and serviette across 3 people to me. I must look like I need fruit, it was very gracious of her and she never spoke to me or made any attempt to communicate.

Kindness comes from the most unusual places. I was grateful to her,  I was leaving my friend (again) and was feeling fragile. I am to learn this might be common place until I establish a routine.

Food here in Vietnam seems to turn the economic wheels. I had Vietnamese pizza for the first time the other night which arrived on thin rice paper and topped with all sorts of goodies. It was delicious, light and very inexpensive.  I sometimes feel very overwhelmed with the street food, there is so much I do not know nor understand and without a “local” to help, it’s very much trial and error. I am pretty adventurous but I must admit I am careful, having been sick a few times in Asia it is a horror if you get it wrong.

Airport food is also very good here and since being here one of the best Beef Pho’s I have had was at the Hanoi airport. For an Australian that’s un heard of.

Experience tells me to stay away from peeled fruit, and salad ..anything washed in water and distinguished Vietnamese gentleman smoking perfumed cigarettes in your local cafe. I have survived another day.

Grab and other forms of communication.

 

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Australia doesn’t have GRAB and Vietnam no longer has UBER.  Another thing I never did in Australia was use an Uber. Don’t really no why, no justification for it really. Maybe because I lived across the road from a pub.

So for me to download the App and start using GRAB here in Saigon was a big thing. I couldn’t fight it any longer it’s just how things work here. So far so good. Getting the SIM card for my mobile was no easy feat, everyone kept saying “you just go and buy a SIM card” yeah, ah no.  Vinaphone was very helpful and whilst I waited in air-conditioned comfort they got me sorted and gave me the best number ever …01234 … something to be said for keeping things fun and not stressing out about anything. As it isn’t going to help.

So as I become proficient at GRAB and learning basic directions in Vietnamese I slowly learn the city and now have a rough idea of where I am ( in my area or Ward 19) and District 1. Thanks to previous trips I can and have landmarks that I can rely on to get me out of trouble. Point in case yesterday, lost, hopelessly lost even with google maps. Trying to cross four roads at a major roundabout. In the end I used the sun and stumbled across a park I recognised. I had had really good Pho near here with Hero and I recalled a story he told me. In this large public park there are a group of men ( guessing they are African American) prey on western women – who are obviously travelling solo. Yes they found me – they didn’t know it but I had their number way before the “hit”.  I left the park and went to a hotel I had stayed at previously,  Gia Vien. Found a toilet and then made my way across the lane to a restaurant for lunch. Wasn’t long before said “man” looking like a tourist wandering aimlessly finds me and pulls up a seat next to me “can I join you?”

Looked him fair in the eye and said “no” you can’t. That didn’t deter him so I pulled out my phone and loaded the GRAB app and booked a car. It turned up in 60 seconds and once in the car the driver locked the doors. The driver knew what was going on and got me safely to  my next destination Bamboo Bar to meet a friend. I feel safer in this city than parts of home to be honest. The people are kind and caring and even the domestic flights are an experience in themselves.

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