Monday, May 6, 2013

Thursday, March 21, 2013

I love Edinburgh

I love the rain-soaked Royal Mile.  Cobbles that invite hiking boots, not heels, gleam in the light and draw you up towards the castle. The city sits dark and mysterious upon ancient hills.  The castle glowers down at you as you climb towards it.  Yet it's a city full of festivals and music and light.

I love the tinny bagpipe music in the souvenir shops.  There’s something so very mournful about bagpipes, but they act as a siren’s call to those who need a novelty kilt and a Nessie shot-glass.

I love the Edinburgh Fringe with its ridiculously long programme masquerading as a phone book and its crazy street performers.  I once walked up the Royal Mile and passed four different acts juggling knives.  One was on a unicycle, one in his underwear, yet another was alternating with a chainsaw.  The fourth one was probably feeling very inadequate about his simple, fully clothed, non-vehicular, power-tool free knife juggling.  I’m sure he’s at this very moment trying to incorporate water buffalo into his act for this year’s festival.

I love the Scottish Library with its witty posters, proclaiming to the world that Edinburgh may not have the nicest weather, but its people are educated and clever and astute and they value the arts.  I love the Burn’s Memorial on Princess Street.  I love that it looks like Castle Greyskull and is blackened by age and weather.  I love that people can get sentimental about a poet, long dead though he is.

I love that it is called ‘The Athens of the North.’ How pompous and presumptive - and how far away it is from the sun baked Mediterranean.  The pillars and monuments draw inspiration from the Greeks, it’s true, but they are also so very, very Scottish


I love the Queen’s Gallery with its overflow of art, displayed with Her Majesty’s kindness.  I once saw a 500 year old drawing by Da Vinci.  I was the only person in the room.

I love Arthurs Seat, a huge, bulking , volcanic mass looming over the city.  It’s a perfect climb on a bracing spring day with Scotland spread before you like a picture on a shortbread tin, all spires and mountains and arctic wind.

I even love the Elephant House CafĂ©, well actually I love the toilets.  The walls are covered by people paying tribute to JK Rowling and her characters.  Imagine your writing touching the lives of so many people.  Imagine!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Cu Chi Tunnels

I’m wary of war museums, and when we went to the one in Ho Chi Minh I sat outside among the tanks and helicopters and tried to not to think of the horrors contained within.  It’s not that I don’t want to think about war, or suggest that we shouldn't learn about it; it’s simply that I prefer to read about it, to hopefully see both sides of the story.  Or maybe I am just a bit of a wuss.

Anyway, I was not anticipating the afternoon excursion to the Cu Chi Tunnels with any sort of interest at all.  I couldn't have been more wrong.

What I didn’t really think about, before I left, was that Vietnam has only recently been opened up to the west.  They haven’t quite got the tourist banter down.  Sometimes they can come of more intimidating than inviting.  The Vietnam War was really very recent.  It was fought there, above and below ground.  The examples of traps and snares are real. 

I knew, of course, that the tunnels have been expanded for tourists.  I knew, of course, that I couldn’t get lost.  I knew, of course, that the gunshots breaking the quietness were from the training field next door.  But, I also knew of a little history, of the way these hills were riddled with traps and of the horror that the people above and below ground must have witnessed during the long years of war. 

It must be a fine balance between museum and theme park in a historical war site.  The Cu Chi Tunnels just outside of Ho Chi Minh City are certainly historical.  They weave under the ground for miles in an intricate web of warfare that is chilling in its ingenuity.

We went underground, for a very short time, into the widened tunnels.  It was hot and claustrophobic and people were scared.  I was bent over, and in darkness for most of the way as the guide was at least eight people away from me.  It was an exhilarating few minutes, but in retrospect it was a reminder of how people lived during an awful, terrible time.

I’m glad we were there on a quiet day.  We left sobered by the experience. 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Hoi An

I think I made my tour group go cycling.  We were on the bus heading towards Hoi An when our guide, Bao, asked who wanted to go on a bycle tour of the town.  The silence on the bus was deafening, until I said “I do.”  The others slowly agreed and so the plan was hatched.  We had spent the morning climbing the Marble Mountain in Da Nang and so agreed to cycle the next day.

Hoi An is a very different part of Vietnam to Ho Chi Minh City.  It does not have the same frenetic traffic and energy.  You can walk along the streets without the danger of being run over by a scooter.  You will, however, be accosted by 1845638 shopkeepers who with varying degrees of urgency implore you to come into their shops and buy something, anything.

I had organised a suit to be made, prescription sunglasses to be created, sandals to be crafted and a dress to be altered all in the first afternoon.  By the time dinner came around I was ready to sleep, not eat.  Somehow I had missed the fact that dinner was going to be a cooking class/demonstration and when we turned up at the restaurant I just wanted a quick meal so I could go back to the hotel and watch American Idol on Starworld (Yes, I know I was in Vietnam…but I never watch it normally.  You do strange things while on holiday).

Anyway, the menu was set for us and we gathered closely around a table to make our Vietnamese pancakes stuffed with prawns and bean sprouts, spring rolls (by far the best I had on the trip), snapper cooked in banana leaf and green papaya salad.  After a few cocktails I got stuck in frying up the spring rolls to a crisp and showing off my hopeless chopstick stills to the amused waiter.  The meal, like everything I ate in Vietnam was delicious – though by this stage I was in danger of turning into a spring roll.

And the cycling? I loved it! I’m not sure about the others, but for me it was an absolute highlight.  We cycled through town, beside rice paddies, through market gardens, past buffalo and near people picking coconuts.  It was a gently warm day in comparison to the heat of Ho Chi Minh, the sun was out, and there was a boat ride at the end.  Brilliant!

We chugged back to Hoi An in a small boat, as the sky slowly faded to dusk.  Ready to re-enter the throng…”Madam, want you want?  I give you good price! MADAM!”


Thursday, January 10, 2013


Yesterday’s stroll quickly took on the aspect of something epic.  It started with a trip to Ben Than market, a heaving mass of humanity with something to sell, be it clothes, fish, a  ‘hilarious Vietnamese Starbucks parody t-shirt,’ or a new bag.  So much to see and nothing at all I want to buy.  I’m going there again today with my cookery class which should be better, I guess.  The market had none of the charm of, say, The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, or even Camden in London.  Maybe I’m just tired and hot.

The rest of my walk was much better though.  I discovered a bakery which sold me a baguette for 50p.  Lunch of champions! I hear the disapproval from here, you know? A baguette when you’re in a culinary hub? Yes, Vietnam was colonised by the French and in the manner of imperialism inadvertently left behind some of their culinary heritage.  Asia, with decent bread…I may swoon!  (Thanks, Britain, btw, for giving us boiled mutton and Christmas pudding…you shouldn’t have).

Then I walked along a road I remember coming along in my taxi from the airport.  I was on the hunt for a pink church.  While taking time from gazing at scooterist’s shoes I had noticed a catholic church of such overwhelming pinkness I had to see more.  Oh, my, goodness! It was certainly pink.  And even better, it was pink on the inside too.  A candy coloured confection in manner of Barbie’s dream house.  It was Barbie’s dream church on a busy road in the middle of Saigon.  I wonder if Barbie knows about it.

Taking the scenic road back, and thanking my lucky stars for my brand new Google Maps App, I practised crossing the road – one must not hesitate, just walk confidently.  I stopped for yet another iced coffee – this one with cornflakes on top for reasons which escape me, and then continued on my walk.

The hotel is near a huge row of Japanese restaurants, beckoning me with their sushi laden goodness, but I stood strong my friends, and went in search of spring rolls.  I think I may have found perfection in rice paper.

This morning, as I get ready for cooking school, I have dined on seafood noodle soup.  It’s made my eyes water and my computer slightly splattered.  Fortified!

The Streets of Saigon