Category Archives: Travel and food

Sticky rice in Saigon

Well I thought I had seen it all in Hanoi;  streets packed with motorbikes, traffic lights a mere suggestion, pedestrians with nerves of steel.  Take all that and multiply by 10 when you arrive in Saigon – or Ho Chi Minh City as it is now officially called.  Rush hour is crazy and don’t think you are safe walking on the sidewalk – these are handy detours for traffic trapped scooters and motorbikes.  Although it all seems totally crazy and random there is a certainly logic about the whole thing that I can’t work out.  Walking down to the Central Market from our hotel I found that some intersections had traffic lights which, for the most part, were obeyed.  However other intersections had no traffic lights at all but for some mysterious reason the traffic would suddenly grind to a halt – lined up as if waiting for the starting whistle.  Weird. 

Whenever we looked confused or doubtful coming to a street crossing the friendly locals would invariably offer to help.  “Follow me” they would urge.  “Stay close – sticky rice”.

The Central Market is hot, sticky and noisy but it doesn’t deter us from hunting down bargains.  Will the T-shirts shrink in the wash?  Who cares?  It says Good Morning Vietnam (thank you Robin Williams) and that’s a good enough souvenir.

For a break from the traffic, the hooting of motorbikes, the heat, the shouting just step inside one of the many upmarket shopping malls in the middle of town.  Here you find all the top name brands, Ecco, D&C,  Gucci.  The price labels are in the millions – Vietnamese Dongs that is – but even so converting to US dollars make eyebrows rise with prices like $800 a dress.  Clearly this is where the affluent Vietnamese hang out – somehow I preferred the market where the goods might not be the same quality but the atmosphere and the smiles are indeed priceless.

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Phnom Penh’s best dry martini

Sipping a dry martini in the roof garden bar of the Foreign Correspondents Club in Phnom Penh I could not help thinking back to what it must have been like in ’93 when Cambodia opened its doors to foreign journalists and diplomats.  The country had been through hell and the FCC as it became known was THE place to hang out.  It still retains a special atmosphere with its wooden rafters, ceiling fans and wide selection of menu surprises – such as cottage pie or fish and chips with mushy peas.  Clearly the Brits had let the restaurant know what their favourite food was.  No noodles for this crew!

Our ride town the esplanade along the river front by tuk tuk was an education in itself.  The streets were crowded, motorbikes competing with fancy imported cars.  The riverwalk pathway was wide enough for what looked like an aerobics class – speakers set down on the pavement, instructor standing in front of what must have been 50 people.  At first I thought it was a line-dancing class – hey you never know. 

Every second store seemed to offer either food or massages – or maybe both.  Can you believe $4 for a massage?  Conterfeit DVD’s were on sale everywhere.  Films probably not even released in Hollywood yet….  And yet I found the street sellers so much nicer than places like Mexico or Jamaica.  Yes they wanted to sell their wares but they did not become a nuisance, were never aggressive and those big smiles just melt your heart.  So needless to say I have a whole bag of “stuff” that I would normally not have purchased but console myself with the thought that I am doing my bit for the Cambodian economy.  Just hope I am not going to end up paying for extra baggage!

Ooodles of Noodles

I am not an adventurous eater – heaven forbid I should ever get invited to participate on Survivor or the Amazing Race.  I just couldn’t do it.  I can see that I would totally let my team down by not being able to scarf down fried grasshoppers or live bugs.  I was therefore a bit dubious about what to expect in Vietnam. That sounds silly, I know, because there is a Vietnamese restaurant in just about every suburb of Calgary – but I have never visited any of them.  Now here I am in Vietnam faced with the real thing – and you know what – it’s great!  Spicy broth with fresh veggies and rice noodles sprinkled with fresh cilantro just before eating.  Yum.  It’s called Pho.  (Pronounced FOH).  Here’s another weird thing.  There are no fat people in Vietnam.  Honestly, I did not see one.  I asked my guide, Bik, about this.  She laughed and said that she had married an American and when he moved to Vietnam to live permanently he lost 25 pounds just over two months and he eats even more than he used to.  So clearly the food is good for you.

Drive through any town in Vietnam and there is sure to be little “snack huts” along the side of the road where you can buy Chicken or Beef Pho for the equivalent of 50 cents – sometimes less.  It’s Vietnam’s fast food – call it McPho if you like.

Sometimes you have to be a bit adventurous with food when you travel.  I know none of us want to be hit with Montezuma’s revenge and trust me, I keep the Imodium and Gravol handy when I travel.  Perhaps however you might want to stretch the envelope a bit on your next trip and eat outside of your comfort zone …. But maybe leave out the grasshoppers.

Junking in Vietnam

Junk  – the word has bad connotations for North Americans – so the idea of spending a night on a junk in Ha Long Bay was received with mixed feelings.  “Don’t worry”, said Huy our guide “You will have a soft mattress and a small private shower.”  In fact what we had was a beautiful room furnished in rich warm woods, crisp white linens and a constantly changing view of magical Ha Long Bay.

 Now that it has been named one of the natural wonders of the world Ha Long Bay is certainly busy with visitors from all over the world.  I couldn’t help wondering what it was like for those intrepid travellers who ventured out to this region before it had been “discovered”.  It must have been magical.  Even with numerous junks and day trippers the area has a certain mystery about it – especially when the mist slides over the sea and wraps around the tall jagged islands.

 Our visit there included a ride around a floating village.  The village is relatively new, about fifteen years, and was a brilliant solution to the overcrowding of Hanoi.  People without homes were offered the chance to come out and start a fishing village and pearl farm which in turn has developed a little tourist industry all of its own.  The local people – mostly young girls – ferry visitors around in traditional Vietnamese boats – almost like a gondola in a way.  Kids here learn to row from an early age and we saw several very small children lying back in the boats and operating the oars with their feet.

 Other highlights of the area include visits to immense caves in the heart of the limestone islands as well as a gruelling 400 step walk up to the top of one of the islands for the “view”.  That’s if you can breathe by the time you get up there.  Phew!  In the heat and humidity that was a mini marathon.  By the time we all got down to the beach a dip in the sea was a must – even without a swimsuit.  Yes some of our ladies just walked right in with all their clothes on!  Good for them!

I ♥ NYC

If you like Attitude (capital A please note) take yourself on a trip to New York.  Yes people.  New York New York – the Big Apple – the city that never sleeps.  Here’s an idea.  Don’t stay in Times Square or in the Village or on Park Avenue.  If you want to meet the real New Yorkers go stay on the upper West Side where people actually live and play and shop and go buy kosher bagels and yummy lox cream cheese.  These people take life seriously and don’t mind giving you their opinion.  Take Nick – well Big Nick as he is known.  His restaurant/diner whatever is in the ‘hood.  To find a table there you might have to take a wander through the kitchen and past the storeroom.  This ain’t no Starbucks and Nick makes that abundently clear with a large sign “No laptops – this is a restaurant, not a library”.

Now there's telling you!

New York was full of surprises.  The subway was amazingly efficient, easy and cheap and we used it until late at night.  Wall Street was so tiny – disappointing really considering its influence.  Times Square was unbelievably tacky and somehow strangely thrilling.  A visit to the mega store My American Girl was extremely disturbing – they specialise in expensive 18 inch dolls chosen to look like the little girl owner with matching outfits and even a hair salon upstairs – for the dolls not the kids.  Yes grown women paid to stand behind a counter and braid a doll’s hair or give it a manicure or pedicure. Bizarre.   I found it rather sickening in today’s climate of starving children in Somalia – but I grow morose…..

The best part of New York was Little Italy.  Now shrunk to just one street – but what a street.  We nearly didn’t find it but after wandering around Chinatown and getting directions a couple of times we turned the corner and there it stood – oh wow.  Pretty lights in the street, tables and chairs laid up with check cloths and candles and even serenading musicians.  A wonderful evening.

So go to New York and enjoy all of it – its vulgarity, its charm, its vibe and mostly its people – it should be called the Big Heart rather than the Big Apple.

Minarets and Mosques

As the call to prayer rang out over the evening skies of Istanbul I had a serious case of goose-bumps.  Here I was in Constantinople – the ancient city that featured in ALL my history books, the gateway to the East, the Guardian of the Bosphorus. Wow.   

Mosques line the Bosphorus

 What did I expect in Istanbul?  After reading online travel blogs I was a bit worried about getting a taxi.  Horror stories crop up on every Google about having to haggle about the fare after the fact.  Dire warnings pop up about not taking public transport and Western women being harassed by fundamental “policemen”.  Instead I stepped off my amazing Olympic Airlines flights (there’s another blog all of its own) into a very modern, clean, bright airport terminal.  Passport control and my visa purchase were quick and easy procedures.  Outside the arrivals hall a line of well-kept looking yellow taxis were waiting to whisk us away to our hotel.  No hassles, no haggles, no bargaining.  So far so good.

 It is such a beautiful city but I couldn’t decide which was more fun – sightseeing or people watching.  I was fascinated by the variety of tourists there.  Many tourists from Arab countries such as Qatar or UAE visiting and doing just the same things as I was doing –  cruising on the Bosphoros, eating hot roasted chestnuts in the park, visiting the Blue Mosque.  I was struck by how beautiful and mysterious many of the Muslim women looked with their beautiful scarves and dark exotic eyes.

Now why can't I look like that?

 

As a woman one of the highlights was visiting the Grand Bazaar.  Oh my – I even saw people with wheelie suitcases going shopping.  Well why not – with over 4000 shops in this centuries old bazaar you could “shop till you drop”.  Dotted around the Bazaar are numerous places to rest a while and enjoy Turkish coffee.  Mmm – well I am not that sure about Turkish coffee.  I think I still prefer my Americano.  However Starbucks never serves coffee in cute little brass coffee cups so that wins hands down.

This ain't no Americano baby

 And the food – the food – the food – fish so fresh it was practically dancing on the plate, tiny tomatoes as sweet as grapes, light fruity wines from Antalya,  the biggest stuffed baked potatoes I have ever seen.  This seemed to be a big favourite “fast food” in the markets.  Take one giant baked potato, scrape out a bit of the inside and then choose your toppings from chopped olives, fresh yoghurt, chopped herbs and goodness knows what else until it is piled high into a heavenly potato mountain.  Did you notice I liked the food?

 Public transit – fabulous!  We took the tram which was really easy and quick because the traffic is awful in Istanbul.  It was brand new, clean, air conditioned and cheap – about a dollar a trip.  We got lost a couple of times and wandered into some really strange areas of the cities.  One street was Plumbing Street – every shop had a selection of toilets, sinks and taps spilling out onto the narrow cobbled streets.  The next street was Electric Avenue – every conceivable wire, cable, electrical connection that you could think of.  We got some strange looks from the tradesmen sitting in their doorways – and jeez I thought I was blending in.  I did feel perfectly safe however.

 Would I go back to Turkey?  In a heartbeat.  It’s exotic, cosmopolitan, exciting and refreshing.  They say East meets West in Istanbul.  They do more than that – they embrace!

Still dreaming of Istanbul

My Big Fat Greek Holiday

Food glorious food!  That’s what I think of when I think of Athens. 

Just another cute Plaka restaurant

We had calamari to die for, Greek salad naturally, the best coffee, lovely Ouzo and sin of all sins – a big slice of Baklava.  Well my rationale was that there could be no better place in the world to eat Baklava than in the Plaka in Athens.  It was worth it – so there Jenny Craig!

Don’t be put off by reports that the Plaka is too noisy, too dirty or too crowded.  Many of the streets have been turned into pedestrian walkways and great little restaurants abound.  Eating out is reasonably priced. If you want to splash out go to one of the rooftop restaurants with great views of the Acropolis which is lit up at night. 

A lovely way to spend an afternoon in Athens ... at the pool

Talking about the Acropolis – now there is a place that is always crowded – no matter what month you visit.  Get a good guide – a private one is very worthwhile – and get out there early in the morning while it is at least a bit cooler. 

Athens has tons of hotels – big and small.  We stayed at the Herodion, a small family run hotel which had a cute little roof garden with lovely views of the Acropolis.  Location is important in Athens because outside of the pedestrian streets of the Plaka the traffic is pretty heavy so you really don’t want to be on one of the main streets.  If you are visiting Athens at the end of your cruise be sure to arrange private transfers from the pier to your hotel.  The pier was a crush of shouting taxi drivers, piles of luggage and bewildered cruise passengers.  We were consequently very pleased to see my local rep there to meet us.  With no trouble at all we were ushered into our waiting air conditioned Mercedes Benz complete with bottles of iced-water.  Nice touch!  Pity the trunk was a bit small for our luggage but that didn’t worry the driver who piled it in nonetheless and lo and behold – when we got to the other end we hadn’t lost one piece.

Hey - hang on to my bag!

Athens has been in the news a lot these days.  The demonstrations were in full swing while we were there so we had to take a walk down to Constitution Square to see what it was all about.  It was actually fairly peaceful and a bit Woodstock in feel.  Lots of tents, hammocks and guitar strumming protesters just “hanging out”.  Things did turn a bit ugly for a while and I did notice quite a bit of graffiti but I truly hope that they are able to resolve matters there.  I would definitely love to return and try just one more slice of that gorgeous baklava.

Beautiful Athens.... I shall come back.