Saturday, February 28, 2015

February 27th & 28th – Ho Chi Minh City

We've come to Ho Chi Minh City at least once every year for the last 8 years, and each time we come here, it gets a bit more advanced, the skyline gets taller, and its famous traffic gets a little bit organised. But, today we decided to try to rediscover the HCMC of a decade ago, by visiting the heaving Cholon district, the Chinese part of town.

As we approached the teeming streets of Cholon, we suddenly got a realisation of how tame and sanitised the central district (District One) of HCMC had become (at least by comparison). In District One there are now traffic lights (that are generally obeyed), and there are ever more cars competing for road space with the thousands of motorbikes. But, here in Cholon, it was like someone had pressed the fast forward button on the traffic – motorbikes came at you from all angles and there never appeared to be a break in the teeming, honking traffic. Crossing the road in HCMC is always a bit of a lottery, but here in Cholon, you involuntarily rediscovered God as you made your way tentatively through the constant stream of bikes weaving around you. Strangely enough, it was great fun.

In the past, we've grown a little weary of the unashamed tourist focus of the Ben Tanh market in District One, so in Cholon we visited the almost totally untouristy Binh Tay wholesale market. This place wasn't full of knock offs, instead it was packed to the rafters with goods aimed at the ordinary people – more hats than I've seen in my life, huge pots and pans for restaurants, rolls of colourful material. As you walked through its narrow corridors, you had to keep a constant eye out for people pushing carts laden with supplies or carrying huge parcels on their backs – the law of the road appeared to be that the bigger the load you were carrying, the faster you went, and the more right you had to barge people out of the way.

The food section outside had a positively medieval nature to it – the road wasn't paved, and there were people absolutely everywhere. There was so much life going on that it made you feel breathless – wonderful to watch.

Once we could take no more, we headed into Cholon's streets, which were nearly as busy as the market. So, we briefly took refuge from the chaos in the calm of the historic Cha Tam Catholic Church, before launching ourselves into a pursuit of a couple of the distinctive Chinese Pagodas which dot the Cholon district. Being Chinese New Year, they were full of worshippers lighting their incense sticks and praying devoutly.

We rounded off our time in Cholon with a lunch in a typical Chinese open-air restaurant, packed with locals and not a single round eye in sight. It was fairly low-grade, but it was the real deal – the punters all jabbering at each other noisily, while the waiters barked at each other at the top of their voices. This was not the place to come for a long, leisurely lunch!

So, it was time to get into the haven of a cab back to District One, where we picked up a few bargains at the knock-off market at Saigon Square, before returning to the ship for a cold shower.

That evening, we went for a more upmarket HCMC experience – by visiting the Chill Skybar for some great views of the city after dark. It's from this angle that you really get to appreciate the choreography and rhythms of the flows of traffic in the city below us. From here, we went for a superb alfresco dinner at Quan an Ngon – the warm air, the cold beer, and the delicate flavours all combining wonderfully to finish off another great day in this fantastic city.

The following day, we only had the morning to explore, so we stuck to District One, which is getting increasingly gentrified. They've even started work on a multi-billion subway system that will make getting around much easier in this congested city. We visited one of the upmarket shopping malls, whose high prices seemed to be putting off most customers, and we popped into the Ben Tanh Market whose low prices were still drawing in customers in their droves.

As ever, HCMC has been hugely entertaining – I wonder how much it will have changed by our next visit?

February 25th – Cooking in Hoi An

I've always loved eating Vietnamese food, but I've never been very good at cooking it. That all changed today, because I am now an accomplished Vietnamese chef, after completing an excellent cookery class in the beautiful little town of Hoi An.

It's about an hour and a half's drive from the desolate port of Chan May to Hoi An, but you're transported to another world, of colourful, historic streets lined with clothes shops, souvenir stands and great restaurants. It's true that Hoi An is no longer the undiscovered gem that it once was, but it still retains plenty of charm along its pedestrianised streets – in fact, for me it's the most manageable town in Vietnam (even if the number of noisy motorbikes here has proliferated massively in the last few years).

Our tour took us round Hoi An's lively market, busy with locals buying up its exotic fruit and veg (and browsing the less-than-fragrant meat section), as we learnt about the essential ingredients of Vietnamese cuisine; before we headed to the cookery school to let the learning (and eating) begin.

We started with one of my favourite Vietnamese dishes – the wonderfully simple rice pancake roll. It's easy to make, but it's all down to the freshness of the tasty ingredients – obviously, it helps if someone else has kindly chopped them all up for you beforehand! We made pancakes stuffed with vegetables (delicious), chicken skewers to be barbequed for us (delightful), and a lovely fresh mango salad.

The best thing was that we ate each course as we made it (which was just as well as my mouth was watering as each creation came together), and I can honestly say that I don't think that I've cooked better food. If only I could have the ingredients prepared for me like this every time (and someone to wash it all up at the end too).

At the end of the course, we were all feeling a little sleepy (the cold beers helped with that), but it was time to do a bit more exploring of the town, so we braved the heat and trooped wearily round the atmospheric streets of Hoi An.

A great tour that hopefully will inspire me to create some more Vietnamese masterpieces when I get home.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

February 22nd-23rd – Hong Kong Is Busy!

Hong Kong has always made its location work for it. First, as a base for the British opium trade to infiltrate China in the 19th century, and more recently as a place to ship out all the manufactured goods from China's factories. But, what's happening at the moment, is that the territory is getting over-run with megabucks shopping tourists from the Chinese Mainland, who are flocking here in their hundreds of thousands to snap up "bargains" in its huge malls. To be honest, there aren't many bargains to be had for us western tourists, but for the Chinese, where sales tax is above 40%, they can't get enough of Hong Kong's high end malls.

So, with the long weekend for Chinese New Year, I don't think that I've ever seen Hong Kong looking more packed. The malls were chock-a-block with shoppers who were willing to queue up in long lines outside Hermes and Prada to spend thousands of dollars on European handbags – the whole territory is in danger of becoming an unbelievable monument to consumerism and conspicuous consumption.

Just to prove to ourselves that Hong Kong still has some soul left, we decided to take the bus out to Sha Tin in the New Territories, to visit the 10,000 Buddha Temple, a temple that we've not been to before. As we got off the bus, we emerged into a huge mall that was almost as busy as the mall we'd left behind in Kowloon – although, being out here in the unfashionable New Territories, it was full of local shoppers rather than out-of-towners.

Tracy did her bit for the local economy by buying a new camera lens, and we then got down to the reason we were here – visiting the temple. Not as easy as you might think, seeing as it wasn't signposted; so, after a false start in a large temple which had the grand total of three Buddhas, we finally followed the crowds to the correct temple.

The temple swiftly lived up to its name, as we climbed a stairway lined with thousands of life-size Buddhas, in so many different reposes, states of enlightenment, states of baldness, hairiness, fatness, thinness, surprise, contentment etc etc. Actually, the temple should also have been called the Temple of 10,000 Tourists, because it was also thronged with people, although in this case, the majority of them were Filipina maids enjoying a cheap day out on their day off. This made it a lively and fun place to visit, and a nice way to get out of the commercialised atmosphere in Kowloon.

That evening we went for a lovely meal out at the Shangri-La Hotel – our first ever Michelin Starred restaurant!

The next day, we had a lot of jobs to do on the internet, so we spent the morning hunkered down on the wifi – our concentration only broken by the many noisy dragon dances being performed around Kowloon to welcome in the Chinese New Year. They were all very entertaining, although the clashing symbols do begin to give you a headache after a while.

At the end of our interneting, it was a case of if you can't beat them, join them, as we dived into the mall to do a bit of retail therapy ourselves (although at the other end of the scale from the moneybags mainlanders).

Finally, we went out in the evening to watch the Festival of Lights in which all the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island are lit up with lasers and neon – sadly, it was more of a Festival of Fog, as the clouds obscured most of the show. So, we spent our time taking silly photos for Tracy's next photography class.

Every year I come to Hong Kong, it seems to get just a little bit more Chinese, and even more focused on shopping. I suppose that the Chinese authorities believe that shopping is the opium of the masses – as long as people have Prada, they might not care about the lack of democracy.

Monday, February 23, 2015

February 21st – Celebrating Chinese New Year in Haikou

The island of Hainan in southern China is getting increasingly popular with Chinese tourists, who come here in their droves to enjoy its sub-tropical warmth and sandy beaches. However, the resorts and beaches are all in the south of the island, while our port of call, Haikou, the island's modern capital, is a long way away from them in the north of the island, and it's not really used to entertaining Western tourists.

Our introduction to the island wasn't great – it was enveloped in fog so thick that its lines of skyscrapers were scarcely visible, while the authorities seemed unprepared for clearing a ship promptly. However, somehow the ship managed to get us all through the immigration chaos, and the sun began to burn off the fog, so that we could actually see what the city looked like.

What we saw was an almost totally modern city that seemed to be expanding before our eyes – building sites everywhere constructing line after line of tower blocks and shopping malls. In spite of this, it wasn't a depressing place – the streets were wide and lined with thousands of coconut trees (which makes this seem an exotic place to those Chinese tourists from the cold cities of the north), while there seemed to be quite a large proportion of parks in the city.

My tour actually took us out of the city to see Haikou's "Volcanic Cluster Park" – a park of extinct volcanic cones and craters swathed in thick greenery. Unfortunately, that probably makes it sound a bit more interesting than what it's become, because the tourist industry has virtually turned it into a theme park. As it was Chinese New Year, the park was absolutely packed with thousands of Chinese families enjoying a noisy day trip out. It wasn't unpleasant, and in fact the people watching opportunities were great, but it wasn't quite the back-to-nature experience that people may have been expecting.

So, we joined the crowds trekking up the long stairways that led to the main crater – if you could zone out the millions of other people sharing the views with you, you could just about imagine the primeval volcanic landscape this was before man arrived.

As we were finished a little early, I persuaded our guide (who was excellent) to take us into the city to see Evergreen Park, the place where the city's people come to play. This being Chinese New Year, they were out playing in their droves, but there was a really good, happy atmosphere to the park, as children played gleefully with their kites and strolled with their parents.

So, I don't think that Haikou is going to be turned into a Mecca for western tourists any time soon, but it's a pleasant enough place which showed us the massive changes that are taking place in Chinese society, as it gets ever more focused on urbanisation, consumerism, high-rise living and leisure.

February 18th – Messing Around in the River in Kota Kinabalu

Visitors to the fast-growing modern Malaysian city of Kota Kinabalu (KK) don't get to see much of the rainforest that people tend to associate with Borneo (the logging operators saw to that long ago) – so, on our half day here, I joined a tour that would take us out of the urban jungle into some of the better preserved countryside in this region, and go rafting down the Kiulu River.

Apparently it had hardly rained for the previous two weeks, so the river wasn't particularly high – something which our group of mainly rafting novices weren't too upset about. So, the rapids weren't too rapid and the waters weren't too white, which meant that we could concentrate on enjoying the lush riverside scenery, rather than re-enacting any scenes from the film Deliverance. In fact, our biggest trouble was to avoid getting stuck on any rocks whenever the water levels got too low – seeing as, somehow, we were floating backwards down the river quite often, this wasn't as easy as it sounds.

Even if the sense of danger wasn't really there, it was great fun as we pretended to paddle and made our guide do all the work, while the tranquillity of the river was incredibly beautiful.

PS. Tracy joined the ship's tour to the Lok Kawi Wildlife Park to see some of the wonderful wildlife whose habitat in Borneo is sadly disappearing fast. Her pictures of soulful orang-utans and the super ugly proboscis monkeys are attached.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

February 17th – A Brush With Sharia Law in Brunei

The fact that the Sultan of Brunei has recently just introduced full Sharia Law into his country has not endeared him to many in the West. However, there isn't an oppressive feel to the streets of the sleepy capital, Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) – in fact, the place felt so calm and deserted, it was virtually comatose.

Although he's one of the richest men in the world, with a personal fortune in the region of $24 billion, it's obvious that this is a fairly wealthy place – every house we passed by appeared to have at least four cars parked in each driveway, and with diesel costing around 25 cents US per litre, maintaining a car is not an expensive business.

Our guides were certainly very complimentary about the Sultan, regaling us with stories of his generosity and largesse, but it was when you started questioning them further, that the downsides of living in an absolute dictatorship became obvious. Difficult questions were avoided and subjects changed, or we were told official party lines about how wonderful life was in Brunei – which it probably is, if you are a devout heterosexual Muslim who is happily married. However, it was obvious that free speech is not totally free here.

Given the amount of money sloshing around here (or at least sloshing around in the Sultan's bank accounts), you might be expecting the architecture to look a little like Dubai or Abu Dhabi, but everything is much more understated here. In a city of shopping malls and bog-standard government buildings, BSB's most impressive architectural feature is its huge mosque with its gleaming golden dome – a splendid reminder to everyone that Islam is the over-riding force here in Brunei. They were happy for us to go inside, so Tracy put on her headscarf and huge black over-cloak and we had a quick look around.

But, for me, the most interesting aspect of the urban landscape was that a large proportion of the population still live in ramshackle-looking stilt villages, overlooking the water of the wide Brunei river. On closer inspection, these stilt houses are not quite as rudimentary as they look – connected to the sewage system, electricity, the internet and satellite TV, while parked up on the landward side, we could see plenty of posh cars.

We didn't have long to look around BSB (not that it needed long), because in the evening we were joining the ship's Silversea Experience to the palatial Jerudong Polo Club – part of the $1 billion investment by the discredited profligate Prince Jefri, who equipped this tiny country with a set of enormous theme parks and leisure facilities that were ridiculously over the top for a population of less than half a million people.

On the way there, we drove through the government district and passed the hugely grand legislature building – a massive complex built for a legislature that has no voice whatsoever; and we then passed the enormous Prime Minister's Office – considering that the Sultan is the Prime Minister, Finance Minister and Defence Minister, all rolled into one, you'd have thought that his offices could be accommodated in his 1,700-room Palace.

On arrival, we found that the interior of the Polo Club was duly opulent, its huge ballroom illuminated by massive crystal chandeliers; and we were treated like royalty in a country where the royalty are obviously treated pretty well. There were some interesting local singing and dancing performances - sounding like a cross between Indian and Arabic music, which I guess sums up the main cultural influences here. While, the food was delicious too, and again was a mix of India and Arabia. The only downside for a group of passengers who are used to all-inclusive champagne every evening, was that this is a dry country, so we had to wash it all down with plain old fruit juice (once everyone was back onboard, there were a few strong martinis swiftly downed to get everyone back to equilibrium!).

So, we saw all the aspects of modern Brunei – mosques and stilt villages, a populace who remain deferential to the Sultan, and opulent architecture funded by oil money. It makes you wonder what this place would be without oil – would the Sultan still be in charge, and would Malaysia have taken it all over?

Brunei may not appear to have much soul to the casual visitor, but it was a fascinating experience to see it in action.