Cooking the Dragon

Hanoi: Every Sunday for two hours Blue Dragon opens to teach the girls some cooking skills. So I put my hand up to give them a lesson on how to make fried rolled beef in ginger and lemongrass and lemon meringure pies for dessert. The girls have been doing this for some time now and their skills in the kitchen are very good. They worked quietly and efficiently and they food they turned out in the end was great. The meringue is one of the best made, fluffy and lightly browned, yum! We had a great time learning from each other and I look forward to some of the other stories and recipes they come up with in the future. Maybe they could make lamingtons, that’s pretty Oz.

Noisy Neighbours and Unwanted House Guests

Hanoi: There is a lot to be said about hotel rooms. You can never pick your neighbours but more importantly you can never pick the position of your room. I am located on the third floor at the very back of the hotel. This is not such a bad thing as it shelters some of the street noise of the locals beeping their horns at each other. At first sight this is a nice courtesy they do for each other, on another note it is THE most annoying thing that people do here – at all hours of the day and night! This and the fact that my room looks out over the neighbours roof top. The neighbours themselves are not so bad; in fact I haven’t heard them once; it’s the fact that at midnight until 4am their cat decides to roam the roof top meowing woefully to the world. I wake up (for the second night in a row) to see my white fluffy friend sitting right outside my window staring at me with a glare that looks like you have just walked in on someone naked. Fortunately cats in Vietnam are scared of everybody and when I open the window to say hi, in cartoon fashion, his feet are faster than his body and he runs away. He might be looking for my unwanted house guest…

Having a shower last night, the door slightly ajar, I see out of the corner of my eye what I think is a tail. I sneakily get down on my hands and knees and peer around the corner and along the wall to behind the mini fridge. Seeing nothing and feeling quite stupid I resume my shower and put it down to the fact that as I was washing my hair a bit of it flicked up and was playing tricks on my eyes. No harm done. It is a little later when I am sitting in bed watching TV that the reality runs along the floor from behind the fridge, into the bathroom and out the square hole in the wall (the hole is the size of a deck of cards upright). I have a chuckle to myself and figure he was scouting for food; found none and has left. I had a good night sleep.

The next night I am sitting there on the bed talking on the phone to Brett when all of a sudden here he is again, sneaking out into the bathroom from behind the fridge. Again he is gone for the night obviously coming back in late this morning. I block the hole with the toilet brush and resume my conversation. As I am sitting there, there he is again, how did he beat me back in the room? This is when I realize that now there are two of the little buggers. Bigger than a field mouse and smaller than a rat. So I unplug the hole and wait not two minutes where my little unwanted house guest runs on his merry little way and out the hole. Toilet brushes are more useful than originally thought. I shut the door to the bathroom with its airtight seal, dim the lights and watch some more TV only to discover that one of my little friends has discovered another hole behind the wardrobe and is sitting on the bottom of the bed! It is hard not to find it amusing so I turn the lights back on and follow him to where he obviously entered behind the wardrobe. Quick little bugger. So I jam the wardrobe as close to the wall as possible in hope that I block the hole. Let’s hope I didn’t squash the poor bastard.

[Day later (footnote) – turns out that he didn’t go anywhere, he came running over me at midnight the following night so I got up and shook the wardrobe to scare him…turns out he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and I squashed him]

Shampoo and Haircuts

Along my travels I had collected an emergency deposit of sample shampoo. They are about one squirt of shampoo in a little foil packet. Well today I needed to use one and to my dismay when puring it into my hand, it was black! I had to have a close look at this as I was just about to put this goo in my hair. Besides the fact that I can’t read anything written on the packet it is a Sunsilk product so I throw caution to the wind and give it a try…

It lathers beautifully and smells really good and I have come to the conclusion that this is a product designed specifically for the Asian population. I am assuming that it contains some sort of dye or colourant that makes their hair shiny. I have never seen an asian person with bad hair. The men have short hair (mostly unless you are a hip teen where shoulder length is fashionable) stylish and most of the women have very long hair. This stems back to an old tradition that long hair wards off evil spirits. Blue Dragon has a hair dressers apprentice come in once a month to cut whoevers hair wants cutting for free. It gives them a chance to practice and the kids (and staff) get a free hair cut.

This does however lead me into the supermarket to purchase a decent sized bottle of shampoo and conditioner. The supermarket is a cross between and Woolworths and a Big W and nothing is any particualr order. You can buy choclate next to the baby wipes, go figure. I do find the hair section though. Again, I cannot read anything so I pick Sunsilk which is one of the only brands I recognise and I get two different shaped bottles of the same colour. I am assuming it is very much like home where the tall one is the shampoo and the tube is the conditioner? I will let you know if my hair falls out! :)

B-Boys and Stilt

Hanoi: I decided today that it was a day for normality so I slept in until 9.30am and went for a wander. I booked a plane ticket for my next adventure, took my shirt and pants in to get copied in three colours and found myself wandering in the direction of the lake. I visited a nice jewelry store, a book store that contained nothing in English, a weird alley way that was filled with people getting ice ream (yes I followed suit – was really good), and a walk through the park and monument of King Ly Thai To. The park is filled with older people playing badmiton so I watch a while and talk to a guy selling books. He thinks that he will run into me again because he is lucky and if I do I might have to buy one off him. Could possibly do with another read shortly. I had read somewhere that of an afternoon the local hang out for the kids (or hoods as I like to call them) is the monument. When I arrive I am pleased to see the rumour is right.

I see a group of about five boys all practising their break dancing. Some of them are amazing. I approach one of the boys sitting on the side who is more than happy to oblige my questions and offer my a coconut sweet (like a donut). His name is Stilt (b-boy name) and he and his team come here as often as they can to practice. They have warfare (organised competitions) with other teams around the area and go to break dancing school but also work full time. I think would range in ages from 12 to 18 and they are happy to pose for me when I ask to take some pictures. I have exchanged numbers with them and will go and see them again next week. I have also arranged to have their teacher (Lion T) to call me to arrange a break dancing lesson at Blue Dragon as this is one of the kids favourite past times. Here’s hoping I can pull it off.

Accommodation Downfall

Hanoi: I know that the old saving about eggs and baskets is an old one but this time I broke them all. I had lined up a faltmate as mentioned previously but it has all become too hard with the ladlord and now I am homeless. Well not really. There are plenty of cheap hotels in Hanoi. Finding them and being satisfied with the room is another thing.

This brings to question, what is really important for long term stays. I have decided that the following must be on top of the agenda (not in any particular order)
- hot water (it is winter over here at the moment)
- air conditioning (the days are still balmy)
- free internet
- TV with satellite TV (unlike current hotel – moving tomorrow – with 30 channels only one works and it is in Vietnamese)
- cleanliness
- security and friendliness of hotel staff
- cost (have found places for $10 with most of the above but not sure I can live in a shoe box)

So, I have found a hotel located in the same district I am in now. Old Quarter is great for everything and the streets are named (traditionally) after their trades. Most of them are still in play today which makes it easy for navigation. As in shoe street, silver street, etc.  I do have this oddity with wanting to go left all the time though. I think my brain is malfunctioning.

Assistant Supervisor

Hanoi: The drop in centre is split into two sessions: 9am to 1pm and 1pm to 5.30pm. There are always two staff and one volunteer to watch over the kids. There is no sign in or particular order for most days and the kids knowing that they are welcome just seem to come and go as they please. It is busiest in the morning as most of the children have school in the afternoon – another program supported by Blue Dragon. I see a few children here that I saw yesterday and understand they must be the regulars.  You really do have to monitor the kids as they fight and argue a little and to avert crisis you must step in. They seem to know the rules well enough and carry on with something else.

I have more Connect 4 games today than the summary of my entire life. I have also learnt that I am not very good at the game, Memory. I go my arse whopped more times than I can count in Connect 4. I think I will have to practice. The kids are very clever. Some of the boys sit and play guitar and they are really good. The noise is incredible and I have a migrane now but like the fact that the children understand what I am there for. They are very touchy people, the Vietnamese, and I will have to get used to being poked, hugged and sat on. I take time to update my blog as my shift is over but I am helping with the beading class shortly (a regular event two days a week mostly for the girls but all their creations are sold and all profits go to the centre). I think I will sleep well tonight for sure.

Enter the Dragon

Hanoi: I decide to get take out and sit and watch TV in my hotel room after wandering the streets and purchasing a mobile phone ($61 including the sim card), not bad even for a Nokia. Tomorrow I will meet my new flatmate and have orientation at Blue Dragon.

I arrange to meet my contact at 10am at the drop-in centre in Ba Dinh District. It is only ten minutes by metered cab and it costs A$3. The centre is in a locally populated district and is located across four floors in a double building. Level one is the centre where the kids come and go as they please with a craft room and music room. Level two is the main office area which houses over a dozen staff along with other teaching rooms. Level three also have teaching rooms and the computer lab which is open all day for us. And level four is the lunch area and kitchen.

I have been assigned some things to do in my time here including teach English (one on one), revamp some furniture (as in get the kids to help me paint them), teach craft (one hour at a time), paint a classroom walk with something light and fun, and supervise in the drop in centre. Not bad for only having orientation today. I also mention I like to cook in general conversation so in addition to the list I am also teaching a cooking class this Sunday with the cook – rolled beef parcels and lemon meringue pies – can’t wait. I am up for anything.

I finally get in touch with my roomy who has forgotten about me and taken a holiday. Feeling a little black-holed I head back to the same hotel I stayed at last night and they welcome me with open arms. As they don’t have three consecutive nights I will move hotels in the morning. Day one – over.

Bangkok

Bangkok: Although I have been to Bangkok before this time it feels different. The people are not as nice and there seems to be more of them trying to rip me off. After arriving at 6am we are taken by a man who gets lost along the way to our hotel where I spend the next two nights with Kate and her parents. The Chateau de Bangkok is not impressive in the foyer but this is a good thing because when you get to your room, you are more than impressed as your expectation is surpassed. Marble bathroom, bath sheets, roof top pool and steam bath (big fan as always). It’s not bad. :)

The entire day herein is spent at Chatuchuk – The Weekend Market. As with most markets you can buy almost anything here. The only difference is that is is the size of about ten football fields – massive! Most of the stalls divided up into logical categories, even the pet shops, and although I didn’t actually find these I am still feeling overwhelmed at the fact that I didn’t even see half of it. I buy some gifts and after many hours we head back to the hotel for a rest.

Similarly the following day is spent at more markets and at MBK – one of the biggest shopping centres in the city. It is a department store like establishment with air conditioning (bonus) and is set across seven levels. For some reason I am drawn to handbags and purses today and I find a reasonable Bally bum-bag and Mulberry purse. I guess because you don’t really travel with a lot of luxuries you tend to get excited at the prospect of seeing a whole store of them. Shopping in Bangkok is expensive compared to other places and because the exchange rate is giving a hiding at the moment I walk away feeling less than ordinary and know that this will hurt my bank balance. Funnliy enough I don’t spend as much as I thought and after a mishap with a taxi driver who proceeded to kick us out of his cab we end up at Patpong night market. There are three rows of the same stuff but it is all patronised by the girlie bars. This is the first time I have been offered a ‘pussy menu’. Not that I am surprised by this but they just don’t give up; and this is coming from a female point of view. I feel sorry for the male population being dragged to this part of town by their female partners, I can only imagine how you feel.  We all meet up at the corner and have a lovely Vietnamese dinner in a nice restaurant then catch a cab back to the hotel where I pack my bag. I bough a new pair of shoes tonight as one of my cheapy pairs from home has finally worn through. Farewell faithfuls.

I rise early in the morning to been farewelled by my lovely surrogates and head to the airport. I  buy a baguette for breakfast and a watch with an alarm as my phone has been stolen and my current $10 watch only tells time. It is a good bargain I think and possible the first useful thing I have found in duty free. ASia Air offers free seating so I shadow the priority seating guests and get on the plane third in line, window seat up the front thank you very much. The flight is quite good and only takes 1hr 50mins from Bangkok to Hanoi direct. Upon arrival at Hanoi airport I run into a fellow backpacker and we agree to share a cab, only to be accosted by a rude mini bus driver. But it is only $3 and he does drop me off where I have asked to be dropped off. Alas I have arrived.

Chiang Mai

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Chaing Mai in Northern Thailand is a bustling city full of tuk tuks and tour vans. After our dinner on arrival with a traditional Thai dance from some local ladies we head to the night market. There is nothing too impressive that I haven’t seen before and the five or six blocks and twisting alleyways show much of the same thing. I buy some shirts for the boys anyway and some small gifts and head back for another late night (midnight). As much as I am a night owl, I have nothing on these people.

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I only have one full day here so I decide to go and take a tour called Flight of the Gibbons. This activity is the most fun you can have on a high wire. It is a 2km stretch of cables and air bridges and platforms approximately 100m off the valley floor in a rainforest. Each person has a full body harness and pully system attached to them and the small groups of nine are guided by two leaders – one at the front and one at the rear. The longest wire is 150m across and the whole system is as safe as something we would do ourselves (probably safer). The company was set up by a bunch of Aussies and Kiwis so go figure. I would recommend this activity to anyone. The trip in the rainforest takes approximately three hours so you get as much fresh air as you can handle. It is pricey at 2080 baht but worth every penny. Your lunch and transfers are included as is your safety gear and your trusty brake – a V-shaped piece of bamboo on a string – priceless! Lunch wasn’t too bad either. I liked it so much I bought the T-shirt :)

Tonight Kate and I are heading to Bangkok on a sleeper bus as all the trains are booked up until next Tuesday. Lucky enough we have our tour guide is on the case for us and she has helped us secure our tickets departing Chiang Mai for a mammoth ten hour haul down south. So in the meantime we have four hours to kill; I think I hear a foot spa and salon calling my name…

Crossing the Border

Our little entourage arrives at the border town in Laos across the river from Thailand. You can see it from the bank of the river; only 200m across. We cross in the morning as the border closes at 6pm. We have our last local Laos food for that one last hoorah; I have beef with pepper, onion and tomato with sticky rice. YUM!

The border is a small office located half way down an alleyway – it’s not very formal. You then board a boat three people wide and are ferried to the other side where you offload and are checked through an equally informal window. You do however have to fight the locals for the que as they are the pushiest sons of bitches ever and don’t care for the foreigners. The trick is to hand as many passports for your group in at the one time whilst someones plays blocker. Works every time.

The border crossing is harmless and quite painless really. We did see a girl lose her bag and panic then re-cross the river to discover that it was on the other side when she arrived over there originally. I have now come to the conclusion that I can part with whatever is currently in my backpack as when travelling I carry my wallet, camera and phone as well as my passport on my person. Everything else is collateral damage and replaceable. I could do with a new wardrobe…