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
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 Café, 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!
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.
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
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!”
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
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 first thing you notice, of course, is the ubiquitous scooters.In the taxi from the airport they waft around
you in an intricate dance to which you don’t know the steps.The being horns must mean something – get out
of my way? I’m behind you? I’m turning left?I don’t know what they mean.It’s
not like India, there does seem to be a method, but I’m just not sure what that
method is yet.
Weary after an 8 hour flight and an uncomfortably hot stay
in Sydney – with the temperature pushing 40˚ and the aircon kaput – I looked
down, at the shoes.What variety:
ridiculous heels, the latest Nikes, bare feet, ballet pumps, jandels.It was a shoe store on wheels.
I was tucked up in bed by 7.30 last night, the six hour time
difference with New Zealand caught up with me and after slurping a quick bowl
of Pho I couldn’t face exploring any more.‘How I met Your Mother’ was on the TV and I fell asleep to another inane
joke from that Doogie Howser chap.
This morning, feeling refreshed after 11 hours sleep, I tucked
into a plate of noodles for breakfast and sat on the roof terrace looking out
over Saigon.The man beside me shook his
head at my hot coffee and went inside to make me an iced one.Three glasses later I remembered I usually
have about one coffee a week, a frothy confection from Starbucks that blurs some
moral boundary.Ho Chi Minh is certainly
winning on coffee quality.
It’s time to explore.I’ll try not to get squashed by a scooter.