Monday, July 29, 2019

Saigon, July 2019

 We took full advantage of the Lao Women’s Union public holiday to have a long weekend down in Saigon.  We arrived into Ho Chi Minh early evening, and the immigration halls were full to over-flowing. It is times like this that our APEC cards allow us to bypass the crowds and go down the special channels – and we feel very, very grateful.  As we had only carry-on, we were soon standing outside waiting for the airport bus to leave.  $1 and 25 minutes later we hopped off the bus and walked the 200 meters to our hotel.  We stayed in the same place as our last time (Little Saigon Boutique) as the rate and the location couldn’t be bettered. 

Day One was wandering around the District 1 area, taking in few familiar places and shops and checking out some new additions.  We visited the Fine Art Museum for the 1st time.  The locals seem to go there to use it as an Instagram background, but there was an interesting mix of art.  The impacts of the American War were prominent themes in much of the post 1975 works. 

We headed off to Secret Garden restaurant for a very nice Vietnamese lunch.  And then around the corner to Maison Marou, a superb chocolate shop.  Andrew previously rated their Brownie as one of the best he has ever had.  A re-sampling this year supported that statement, and he maintains it is his favourite in the world.  We did pick up a couple of pieces the following day to bring back to Vientiane. 

In the evening we went to the AO Show at 6 pm in the Saigon Opera House.  It allowed us to see inside the opera house and also to enjoy a very good show.  Sometimes it is described as the Bamboo Cirque du Soleil.  It was a one hour of acrobatics and energy telling the story of Vietnam through to modern day.  Their use of bamboo and props was stunning. 

After the show we headed off to the nearby Secret Garden restaurant – it isn’t a chain, but has 3 restaurants in the inner city and we frequented 2 of those locations multiple times in our short trip.  The spring rolls would also be on Andrew’s best in the world list.  The downside of this location was the tables are at knee height and we had to curl ourselves up to eat. 

The next morning we go on the local bus and made our way over to Chinatown.  We had booked to go on a mystery tour which was expected to take the morning to do - The Strange case of Dr Lam.  The lady who met us was super impressed we used the buses.  I did end up in the opposite seat to the lady in the picture below, with my chin resting on my knees due to the wheel dome, while Andrew sat quite comfortably with a nice flat area for his feet.  We did like the hanging hand holds, which were a cup of noodle advertisement

The concept for the morning was that Dr Lam had been murdered and we had been called in to solve the murder.  We were given the scenario and a set of clues and sent off to solve the murder – a sort of hybrid structured walking tour and role playing game.  We finished just before 13:00.  Up until the last hour we had enjoyed the process, getting the clues, moving from place to place, meeting “contacts”, but in the last hour we felt the concept lost it’s way a little.  We got stuck on a clue at a Chinese temple and weren’t sure where to go next.  Anyways, we solved the mystery, and eventually found the final steps.  Andrew was highly impressed with my ability to break codes and still has no idea how I could do it.  

We did move to the nearby Rex Hotel for our last night as we couldn’t get a 3rd night in the room we wanted at the Saigon Boutique Hotel.  The Rex is a bit of an institution in Saigon and it was interesting seeing the high society weddings being hosted there on the Saturday night.  We headed back to the Secret Garden for a final meal

And a lovely photo of Andrew in art-viewing mode, with his fan and shopping bag

Monday, July 8, 2019

Hong Kong, the June Birthday Version

Andrew was offered the option of a set of new hankies for his birthday or a trip to Hong Kong.  Not surprisingly he chose the latter option. 

We arrived into Hong Kong about 8pm and headed off to our accommodation in Wan Chai:  Apartment 218 which was good value and an easy base for getting around. 

On THE birthday we went out for breakfast at a recommended coffee shop, the Cupping Room.  Pleasingly they also did a nice Eggs Benedict.  

The excellent coffees and food on board we headed to the Central Piers to catch a ferry to Cheung Chau island. 

We timed it well and were soon off on the slow boat into Hong Kong waterways.  Andrew had a great time watching the hydro foils, large container ships and other boats for the hour long journey.

We arrived about 11:00am so decided to do a short walk before heading to a beach bar for a beer an lunch.  The island has no cars so there are plenty of bikes, which we could have hired.  There were a few women riding covered from tip to toe like the picture below - note she also has stabilizer wheels, another common sight

It was very hot and humid and as we got to the beach bar it began to rain.  So we parked up under an umbrella and had a couple of cold drinks to re-hydrate.  We were still not hungry after the heavy breakfast, so decided to skip lunch and made our way back to the harbour for a return ferry.

In the IFC mall we went into Apple and got new batteries in the phones.  It was the 1st time we had used the Genius Bar services at Apple and it was such a slick operation.  The staff were easy to deal with and less 2 hours later the phones were returned to us.  We had spent the time doing a little shopping and having a couple of Tim Ho Wan Crispy Pork Buns to tide us over until dinner – didn’t want to spoil our appetites before the birthday meal.

We turned up at Ship 22 Ships shortly after 6pm to get a seat, as there were no reservations.  The dishes we selected were all very good and we enjoyed watching the tiny kitchen operation hum.  

Saturday was a bus-ride to the Hong Kong Heritage Museum.  It was good sitting on the top of the double-decker going through areas we had not seen before.  At the Heritage Museum was the “A History of the World in 100 Objects from the British Museum” exhibition.  As expected it was very good and we enjoyed the eclectic selection of items.  The museum is also home to an extensive homage to the HK actor Bruce Lee.  A good part of the 3rd floor was given up to exhibits on his life and movies in both Hollywood and Asia.

Exhibits covered 3000 years of human existence, and included a metal clubs made by the botanist Joseph Banks in London as gifts for Maori, but her never had the opportunity to bring them back to NZ

In the evening we got on another bus and headed for Central.  We are lucky Andrew has a Seniors Hong Kong travel card, so our transport costs are significantly reduced.  We specifically targeted a Moroccan restaurant, because it is one type of cuisine we don’t get in Laos.  We met Sarah at Le Souk, and had a lovely meal and evening. 

On Sunday we had some fantastic pastries at Gerard Dubois’ Passion bakery, followed up by some top notch coffees elsewhere. 

We took the free hotel shuttle-bus back to the Airport Express terminal.  It was interesting driving around the streets, that one week before, had been teeming with protesters.  There was an obvious police presence this trip, but no problems for us.  One week later the protesters, objecting to the proposed extradition to China law, returned to those same streets and stormed the Legislative Buildings.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Flores Indonesia: Here be Dragons

Another Lao New Year and another trip out of the country during the heat and associated chaos.  This year Indonesia was the destination, and more specifically the Flores Island area.  While we flew into Denpasar, Bali, our destination was a world away from the excesses of Bali or a 90 minute flight plus 1 boat ride.

The morning departure from Vientiane to Kuala Lumpur was delayed and we had a brisk walk through Malaysian Immigration, transfer to the other terminal and straight to the gate – we were always on track to make our flight but there was not a lot of time to spare.  It was still a relief to be on the flight and heading for the 2.5 hour journey across to Denpasar.  We stayed in a hotel beside the terminal and headed directly back into the airport the next morning for the 90 minute Garuda flight down to Labuan Bajo. 

There we were met by a representative of The Seraya, where we were staying for the next 5 nights.  There was also a family of four who had arrived on the same flight and we were driven 5 minutes to the harbour where we got on the little local boat for the 45 minute boat trip to Seraya Island. 

The main dining/meeting area had been built in bamboo (over steel beams) in the shape of a Manta Ray.  The effect was both aesthetically pleasing while being very cool & light.  

The plan for our time was one trip into the national park and then just daily snorkeling on the house reef.  Pure relaxation.

The reef was excellent and easily accessible from the long jetty.  Stepping off the jetty you were immediately in deep water, no wading out, no avoiding damaging coral.  The water was clear with good visibility and there was little or no current.  The clear depth would have been 4 or 5 metres and it was adjacent to a steep drop-off.  This meant we were able to see  so many brightly coloured fish – both big and small, swimming individually or as part of large schools.  We even saw a turtle.  There was plenty of healthy coral and some frames where coral was being re-seeded.  There were areas where coral had been destroyed but overall it was magnificent.

Our day trip was a full-on day.  We did it with the British Family who had arrived the same day as us.  Our powerful boat (with 2 150HP engines) chewed up the miles in the hour it took to get to Padur Island.  Here we paid national park fees, then climbed the steep hills – hard work but the reward was views over the 3 beaches on the island, black beach, white beach and pink beach.

Our boat took us on to a pink beach for a snorkel.  Rather nice to be in the water after sweating up and down the hills.  Then we were off to Komodo Island to see the Komodo Dragons.  We did a short walk and saw 2 dragons near the waterhole, a young and a mature older dragon.  

On returning the to main area we got up close to 2 more large dragons sitting camouflaged in the shade.  One got up and lumbered down to the beach as he had picked up the scent of 3 deer walking along the beach.  There was no mistaking the power in his physique - a dinosaur in motion.  Andrew struggled a little bit to remember the name of the dragons, and they were referred to as the Kumara Dragons more than once!!!

Back on the boat we saw a pod of dolphins who proceeded to play in the wake of our boat.  Later in the day we were planning to go to a place called Manta Point but we unexpectedly came across Manta Rays on our way to lunch.  The boat stopped and we all jumped into open water to swim with the Manta. 

Boating in turquoise waters and a tiny bit of a Manta Ray
It was a fantastic, albeit slightly scary experience.  We saw so many of them swimming about.  They were very large and as they swam to towards you it was slightly scary – even though our guides had told us how safe and gentle they were.  It was the highlight of the day!

picture from

After the swim we proceeded to a sandbar - or a desert island - for a snorkel and lunch.  Our boat driver said in the high season you couldn't see the island for people and there could be 10 or 15 drones being flown.  We are lucky to not be here in the high-season!

After lunch we went to Manta Point.  There were no Manta but the boat kept looking and then it was dive - dive -dive.  Our final experience was a single Manta Ray, but it was enormous - 3 to 4 metres across.  It was amazing.

One morning we Kayaked across the nearby island.  The sea was a millpond and it took us 25 minutes or so each way.  The island was part of a coral regeneration project where 250 frames had been seeded and were being monitored.  Other people had been over and said the coral colours were stunning,  However we found there was a very strong current in the morning and didn't really see the extent of the coral.  We didn't re-do the journey as Andrew and I struggle to co-ordinate in a two man kayak and a bit a 'discussion' is participated in.

The stay was very relaxing.  The accommodation well thought out and the evening dining with everyone eating at the same table was a good way to meet people and hear their stories. There was no internet but if you climbed up a hill nearby you could pick up some 3G - enough to check email and make sure no major had happened.  

It was back to Denpasar and on to Kuala Lumpur for 2 nights.  We managed to fit in a very nice steak meal one night at The Steakhouse and a bit of shopping.  As our return flight to Vientiane was at 6:40am that meant needing to be at the airport by 04:40am - therefore we stayed at an airport hotel where we could walk across to the terminal.  

Monday, March 25, 2019

Weekend in Singapore

We picked up a good deal for flights from Vientiane to Singapore and were quite happy to return after an absence of about three years.  We headed down on Thursday and returned on Sunday - just enough time to eat, explore and do a little shopping.

On Friday we headed out to Haw Par Villa.  It has been on my radar for a long time, but it was never quite the right time to slot it into an itinerary until now.  I knew a bit about it, but basically told Andrew nothing except that it was "quite different" and he would either love it or hate it.  It turned out the weirdness landed on the love side for him.

Formerly known as the Tiger Balm gardens, it was built by the Tiger Balm family over 8 Ha.

It all starts off fairly normal

But quickly heads to the bizarre.  Welcome to the 10 courts of Hell.  

There were plenty of  traditional Chinese elements 

But alongside there are King Kong apes or Medical bunnies and multiple items that just make your head shake in bewilderment!  

 Beyond words really, but worth a couple of hours there and back.

This trip we searched out a couple of recommended hawker food courts away from the pure tourist areas.  The 1st introduction was Alexandra Village food court.  While we had recommendations of where to go, in the end we used the traditional technique of choosing the longest line and ordering what the men in front of us ordered  $3.50 each later we had a plate of delicious mixed pork and rice.  The beers would have cost more than the meal itself!

We also went to Zion Riverside Food centre.  But accidentally we went to the Old Zion food court, about 10 minutes walk away.  Not inspired by the stalls, we settled for a chain store Indian meal.  While eating our Kottu Roti I realised our mistake looking at the map.  We were sad because we had been looking forward to some of the best Char Kwe Teow in the city and Dumplings.  So we decided to walk there anyway, and it looked great.  Having had a meal already, we bravely made room for some delicious (hot, hot) dumplings

Apart from some shopping we spent some time riding buses between destinations.  It was good to see the apartment blocks and greenery and all the trappings of a modern efficient city.  Rather a contrast to life in Vientiane.

And we have had a very culturally filled month.  Earlier in the month, the Singapore Dance company came to Vientiane and presented three modern ballet pieces which were excellent.  Looking at the arts calendar while we were in Singapore we decided not to see them again performing more ballet, instead we opted for Opera.  At the Theaters by the Bay (the Durian shaped buildings) we joined an intimate audience in a small theater for 90 minutes of world-class piano and Opera.  2 women performers, who had spent a long time on the European circuits, presented a delightful mixture of pieces.  It was a real treat, as Andrew always says

Returning home, we had a delayed departure from Singapore and a tight transit through Bangkok.  One of us, had a small meltdown with a bit of snapping at the poor guy operating the scanning machine.  You would think with the number of scanning machines he has been through, he would not bat an eyelash at being asked to take off his belt or shoes...but international crisis avoided, we made the fight back to Laos

Overall a great short break, even if the beer was amongst the most expensive in the world.

Stayed at Ibis Ben Coolen

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Prague and back to Munich

Our time in Prague was a little odd.  Rather than planning our time in the city, a lot of our attention focussed on dealing with the items we lost in Kutna Hora.  From buying new toothbrushes through to new iPads, nothing critical, but the whole process was an unsettling distraction.

Wanting to make the most of 2 days in Prague we decided to head straight for the castle.  It is an iconic part of the city.

Having endured the security screening process, we slipped and slided our way around the snowy inner courtyards.

Andrew had suggested before we arrived there would not be many tourists about in the middle of the off season.  How wrong was he?  Everywhere we went lines and groups.  I was there more than 20 years ago and it was busy but now in summer we can only imagine the total tourist overload.
Prague is geared to take the tourist dollar.  Every church, every display or anything with a door has an entry fee.  One little gem worth paying the entrance fee for was the St Nicholas church.  Baroque exuberance at its best.

Another day, another beer for lunch - even if we didn't quite manage to fill the beer card up...1 down 98 to go...

Our final night was back to Munich.  Racing down the motorway with the sound of clingwrap ringing in our ears.  Clingwrap is not particularly aerodynamic and it was a pleasure to drop the car off 1 day early.  Even though it was damaged it, the return was a very easy process.

In Munich city we shopped and went out for a good meal at a modern brewery.  Good beer and food and they closed the street down for us.  Well, not just for us, but for a pre-Carneval dance.  Quite a lot of effort obviously would be spent practicing for the annual Carneval events - and a bit of beer drunk as well one would imagine.  

We also were 'blessed' by the harlequin with a mark of soot of our noses.  Bad luck from the car break-in was banished

PragueL Ibis Mala Strana, Munich: Mercure Old town 

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Bye bye bags

It started out as a normal holiday day.  Breakfast, luggage into the car and on the road.  It finished with time spent in a Czech police station and a roll of cling film. 

It was beautiful blue sky day and we headed to the Unesco World Heritage pilgrimage church of St John of Nepomuk, at Zelena Hora.  
It is a pretty site, especially with the snow on the ground.  The church sits inside an outer wall which takes the shape of a 5 pointed star.  The church itself wasnt open mid-week in the middle of winter.

Charmed, we drove on to our designated lunch destination of Kutna Hora.  Famous for it's Ossuary (Bone Church) and Gothic Catherdral of Barbora.  We parked nearby on a residential street, near a few tour buses and headed off for lunch at Cafe Barbora.  It was good meal and we walked around the church and colonnades before heading back to the car.  

We got back to the car just after 13:00, having been away for under an hour, and finally left Kutna Hora after 18:00.  The reason...

Some **** had broken into the car and taken the two small backpacks sitting on the backseat.  Of value in the bags were 2 iPads, a work laptop, Andrew's hearing aids and a little cash.  Of no value, but much inconvenience by their absence, were 2 jolly good daypacks, cables, earphones and various useful bits and pieces that we had added to our travelling kits over a number of years.  The suitcases remained untouched.  

We had to call the police who turned up quickly.  Neither of the officers spoke any English.  My German wasn't good enough for the conversations needed, and we turned to Google translate to act as an interpreter.  The forensic team arrived, dusted the car for prints, and after an hour or so, we all went to the police station.  

We sat in the waiting room and waited.  We made a list of the things we could think of in the bags, and their value, and we waited.  We called the car-hire firm and they said bring the car back to Germany as there were no repairers in Czechia.

Eventually we found out we were waiting for a translator to arrive.  When she arrived it became so much easier for everyone.  We had to be interviewed and make the police statement .  Our interpreter worked seamlessly between English and Czech, even so the process took forever.  On the positive side, the 2 police, one male, one female, and the interpreter, were lovely people and there were a few laughs along the way.

Statement done, the key piece of advice the Inspector gave us was - wrap the broken window in Cling-film.  On leaving the police station, we drove with the wind whistling through the car, to a supermarket to procure said cling-film.  We proceeded to wrap it around and around the window.  We were both very surprised how effective it was on the 1 hour slow journey, on busy roads, from Kutna Hora to Prague. 

We were pleased to see the hotel and we deposited the car in (expensive) underground car-parking and proceeded to ignore the glad-wrap window for the next 2 days.  The day was a surreal experience.

On returning to Laos we were informed by the police the bags were found - minus the expensive technology - but Andrew's expensive hearing aids were in the bag.  We are currently working through the process to get the bags returned to Laos. Fingers crossed!!

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Brno, Brno, Snow, oh

Oh, snow in Brno.  We can now all pronounce Br-No, it rhymes with snow

With a limited amount of time allotted to the city we had to brave the heavy snow falling in the morning.  By lunchtime it had cleared and there were even blue-sky periods.

While we climbed the hill to the castle, the views were limited due to the snow and being a Monday, the castle was closed.  So not a huge win on that activity

Back down into the city itself and we wandered the streets looking at the art and buildings
 I had been interested to check out the iconic statue in Moravian square, which you are supposed to walk under and look up - but he was smack in the middle of the town winter ice-rink - so not possible.  However there were plenty of other installations and art in the city centre. 

The interesting sculptures on freedom square included 'the four morons' which date from 1928.  Looking at their faces you can understand why the guidebooks describe them as '4 morons, trying to hold up the building and their pants at the same time.  

Which segues into our favourite moron, who yet again ordered a pork hock that would have fed a Lao family for a month.  This is just a repeat of Bucharest a year ago.  Lunch at Stopkova was good hearty stuff and yet another opportunity for to partake in the very good Czech beer.
 Stayed at the nice boutique VVhotel