Holidays at last!

We're in Saigon and loving it. Apparently Saigon is the worst place in Vietnam, so it's only going to get better from here.

Vietnam is an incredibly interesting place to travel. A communist country, it has fully embraced capitalism with all its class distinctions that brings about. Vietnam airlines will happily charge extra for you to go into "Upper Class". Capitalists rent passenger bicycles, cyclos, to incredibly poor drivers for US$1/day and kids are put into service selling books, cigarettes, chewing gum and all sorts of things.

With capitalism, and with extensive tourism, comes robbers, rip-off merchants and danger for people like us. Vietnam has its share of people who will overcharge those who don't know the local prices by a few bucks but the other dangers of places like Thailand don't seem to be a problem. People are incredibly friendly and helpful. Even those trying unsuccessfully to sell you something are cheerful and polite about it.

So what have we been up to? When we arrived around 4pm it was 32 degrees with all the humidity and just beginning the afternoon storm. Our trip into the city by taxi was uneventful, although of course the driver tried to hook us up with accomodation at his mate's place for a tidy kickback. We managed to extract ourselves and found a nice, clean, cheap place in the centre of the backpacker district.

Yesterday we got ripped off by a cyclo driver who took us to the War Remnants Museum, formerly the American War Crimes Museum but with a changed name to not scare off the Yanks. We made the mistake of bargaining in US dollars which don't give you much leeway up and down, and US$1 is a lot of money. The dong, with 14,000 per $US is much more flexible, allowing you to juggle a few 1,000 very well worn banknotes. The markets were interesting, though more for locals than us farang. Lots of weird produce, fake designer clothes and te like.

The War Remnants Museum was disturbing, but worth the visit and the 10,000 dong entry fee. Tanks, planes, guns, mines, ammunition and lots of other American and French war machinery left at the fall of Saigon were on display. As well there were displays of disgusting brutality perpetrated by American soldiers, information about the effects of defoliants like Agent Orange and an exhibition dedicated to photographers who died during the war. The whole thing was quite one-sided and talking to not particularly pro-Commie locals there were plenty of nasty things done by the North's soldiers.

In the afternoon we arrived at a much more reasonable rate and wandered around the expensive tourist area looking at stalls. It's amazing the stuff they have here to buy, though we have to remember that we'll be lugging anything we buy 1,700 kilometres North to Hanoi and through Paris before we touch down in London.

Lacquerware seems to be a bit of a specialty with beautiful bowls, boxes, chess sets and the like available for a couple of bucks. This is the sort of stuff that sells in Pentimento on King Street, Newtown for $100. There also seems to be a lot of Tintin merchandise, a hangover from the French influence, including t-shirts and posters of a non-existent "Tintin in Vietnam" book.

Finally I'll leave you with a description of what it's like around here. You first have to understand the noise. There's a constant hum as hundreds of bicycles, noisy and dirty motorbikes and cars bump, roar and toot their way down the street. Every few metres in the backpacker area you're asked to buy something, go into a cafe or jump on a cyclo. The footpaths are crowded with cafe tables, motorbikes and bicycles for hire, mobile food and cigarette stalls and people sitting going about their business. This necessitates frequent stumbles out onto the road itself.

Now the traffic is incredible. There are no rules, no correct side of the road other than a rough tendency to be on the right more than the left and vehicles and people heading in every direction. To cross these roads you can't wait for a gap, there won't be one. You have to stride out slowly but pointedly and the traffic will flow around you. It's pretty terrifying at first but works surprisingly well considering the volume of traffic. That said I won't be hiring a bicycle in this town.

Everyone moves about smoothly. There are no traffic jams, mainly because everyone is happy to swerve around each other and the fact that the majority of the traffic isn't road-hogging cars. The slow speed helps, you wouldn't want to negotiate this sort of traffic at high speed. In general it moves at between 0 and 40 km/hr.

Tomorrow we're heading off on a half-day tour of the Cu Chi tunnel network built by the Viet Cong during the war just outside Ho Chi Minh City (the name of greater Saigon). In the afternoon we'll check out the Reunification Palace. For dinner we'll have Pho Bo (beef soup) at the soup bar that served as the Saigon headquarters of the Viet Cong during the war as American GIs stuffed themselves downstairs.

On Thursday we head to Dalat on the first leg of our open-ticket tour to Hanoi, allowing us to stop anywhere along the way for as long as we like.

It's gonna be a fun four weeks! Not sure when I'll get to a net cafe again. We'll see.

Update time

Well it's been almost a month since I last told you what we're up to. Been a bit slack, I guess.

I never thought I'd appreciate evergreen trees so much as being in London in Winter. The trees were a gorgeous range of bright autumn colours when we arrived but are now stripped naked, leaving spindly twigs and branches like the remainder after a bomb has been dropped. Of course the colourful autumn leaves were great but the result is a bit grim.

Holly and I moved into a house on Friday with a nice Kiwi guy called Duncan. The house is in Queen's Park/Kilburn which is North-West of the City, just north of Shepherd's Bush. You can see it on a map here.

So now our address for all those late Chrissie presents you're sending us:
221A Bravington Road
Kilburn West, London, W9 3AR
United Kingdom.

Holly has a job with Harrod's starting on the 18th December in the baby clothes section. She'll do this until one of the agencies she's registered with comes upwith something better. I've registered with a bunch of agencies and had a couple of interviews but it's pretty slow before Christmas with most jobs starting in January. We'll see how we go.

Last night we went to an excellent cocktail party in the East End. Friends of Kris Brown's who now have a new flat out there. Lovely people and lots of drunken fun had by all.

We also spent a week in Holly's home town, Leicester, a few weeks back. Lovely place and distinctly colder than London. During that stint we checked out a bunch of local historical sites: Bradgate Park, Lady Jane Grey's home before Henry chopped off her head; Warwick Castle; Bosworth Battlefield where a major battle in the War of the Roses took place.

So having fun. Love to hear from you all to see what you're up to.

I'm an uncle!

Just got this email from my brother Anthony:

At 11:15pm on Tuesday the 14th, Laura gave birth to a 4.175kg baby girl by C-Section

Wahoo. Looks like I'm an uncle and Anthony and Laura are now parents. Her name is Abigail and by all accounts she's a gorgeous bundle of joy. (We're still waiting on photos hint-hint people in Sydney)

Congratulations Anthony and Laura and hope you can fight off the clucky grandparents long enough to cuddle her yourselves :)

Welcome to Sunny London

Well here we are in London at last. Our week in Paris was, of course, fantastic. Had lots of yummy cheese, met some excellent people and did a small amount of sightseeing.

I guess I should talk about some of that. We went to see the Catacombes. These tunnels under the city contain tens of thousands of human skeletons exhumed from graveyards in Paris for hygeine and real-estate reasons. They're now stacked in massive stacks with sometimes grim scull-ptures made out of them. Quite odd.

So here is London. It's raining. No surprise. It's not to cold, yet. It's fun!

We're staying with Rachel Prior, an Aussie friend, who has made us most welcome. Sniffing around at the housing market, it doesn't seem too bad, particularly once we start earning pounds. The job situation for me is great -- shouldn't be hard at all. For Holly it's going to be more difficult as Social Workers, not Psychologists, are more often used in her area.

So off we go. I should have a mobile phone soon, hopefully. I'll post the number when I have it.

Why do I love France?

I've been thinking about why I love France so much. It could be the food, the cheese, the wine, the peoplem the history. But really it's the lack of the anti-intellectual cultural cringe you see in Australia. Arts funding here is sprayed around with a fire hose and people living off that funding are considered the country's future, not a bunch of leftie bludgers.

The sports section of the newspapers this week have, along with the usual football, large sections on the Kasparov chess matches (Kasparov lost and is no longer the World Champion). In the Herald I'm sure this was relegated to three lines on page 24.

We haven't actually done much this week as far as touristy stuff. Mostly it's just been wandering around the city. It seems to be school and uni holidays so there's stacks of young people in all the shops and museums, which makes things interesting.

Holly's been loving the shopping and has bought quite a bit, though she's having trouble buying shoes that fit her big hooves. A word for the fashion conscious: please boycott Kookai. This company makes only two sizes of clothing (informatively labelled 1 and 2) and shoes which don't even come close to fitting. I don't understand why anyone would buy clothes from them unless they happen to fit one of their two sizes. I mean who's going to spend big money on designer clothes that only kinda fit?

I've bought a funky pair of shoes to go with my new suits, gloves and a beanie for the cold London Winter.

Last night we found a place that's as close to the value we were getting in Vietnam as possible. 80FF for 1.5 litres of beer called "cheap blonde". Not quite 50 cents a litre but getting there...

Today we're going to the Paris Museum of Modern Art. Tonight our friend Mani is popping down from the Netherlands for the weekend. We'll hopefully get out to some funky club and possibly make it to Versailles tomorrow.

J'adore Paris

Spent the day today wandering around Paris. We have a weekly ticket on the Metro and travelled to the Arc de Triomphe and then wandered down the Champs-Elysee towards one of Paris' department stores.

Holly of course bought several things. The men's section of the store was full of boring crap -- "streetware" ended up being boring Ralph Lauren and other ordinary, conservative clothes with a "label" to supposedly make them cool. I see so many people, not just in this country, wearing this sort of crap; but what is it that makes something your parents would wear cool just by having a particular label on it?

So we wandered around a bit more, feet getting sorer. Before we finally hopped on the Metro back to our hotel, we saw an interesting looking building, poked our heads in and found an amazing church with incredible ceiling and mosaics.

We're both a bit jet lagged. There's a club on tonight that looks cool and, importantly with the state of the Australian Lire, is free but we're both too tired to head out.

An interesting discovery, which you probably wouldn't find if you don't speak French, is that a whole bunch of museums and galleries in Paris are free for under-26s. This makes our stay considerably cheaper! So now we can go to the Modern Art Museum and the like because it costs us nothing.

Weather tomorrow is supposed to be cloudy but dry. We want to check out some flea markets and mabye the Centre Pomidou, though that depends if it's open as it's All Saints Day which is a public holiday in France.

Orright then. Having fun and loving Paris. More soon.

Paris wow

We're in Paris and loving it! Holly has been raving about how much she loves the place all afternoon.

Of course, as with entry into any country, there were some hassles. We breezed through baggage claim (our bags were first off the carousel, much to the chagrin of the whinging old frogs who spent the whole flight complaining) and customs. Then Holly and Michael both ended up with problems. Holly managed to get her Visa card eaten by the ATM and Michael's flight to London was delayed enormously by rain and wind in London and Paris. There was a tornado in the UK yesterday and Charles de Gaule airport in Paris closed down.

Michael's now staying the night in Paris and will make his rendez-vous with Jean tomorrow, much to his disappointment. He wanted to get there ASAP after six months of seperation from his beloved.

We've managed to find a decent, cheap hotel in the 3e arrondissment, close to the centre of town. The prices, of course, are a bit of a shock after US$5 rooms in Vietnam and US$0.50 litres of beer. But we knew that and London is going to be worse, what with the state of the South Pacific Peseta these days...

So, having fun and soon to be in London. My French is getting a workout and is holding up surprisingly well considering it's nearly 10 years since I set foot in the country. Need more vocabulary which I've forgotten to really express myself beyond the basics.

Holly's been trawling through the shopping section of the Lonely Planet and has already marked out a bunch of shops, especially the hair accessory shop which sells over two hundred hair accessories. (sheesh!) Fortunately the Euro is doing almost as poorly as the Aussie Rupiah so shopping won't be QUITE as expensive as London, though it's a matter of degrees.

We sauntered into Paris wearing our brand new clothes we had made in Hoi An. Holly's wearing her spunky (ooh the poms will love that term!) red riding hood duffle coat, Michael in his suit pants, silk shirt and London overcoat and me in my purple shirt and cord jacket. We almost feel as stylish as the locals, except for the Vietnamese mud on our shoes...

Anyway, more soon. Net access here is much faster than Vietnam, though commesurately more expensive, so we can do more updates without too much frustration. We'll also be able to phone home for something less than US$30 for 3 minutes. We'll also be responding to emails more quickly.

Halong Bay and off to Paris

We're back in Hanoi after 3 days going to Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay. We timed it perfectly and got beautiful sunny weather. That meant we got some swimming in. First off the boat and then at the beach. On Day 2 we did a half-day hike to the top of a jagged limestone mountain. Then we swam at the beach. No waves but water as warm as a bath. And of course they sell beer on the beach. Aaah! We had to do it, that's our Summer!

Tonight we're off to Paris. There's still lots to see here so it's a bit sad. We'll be getting some beef in for dinner since we won't be eating European beef.

Next notice from Paris.

Hanoi and onwards to Sapa

We've been in Hanoi the last two days. Beautiful old city, although the traffic is more hectic than Saigon!

We managed one sunny day today but I managed to spend most of the day in bed with the runs and a fever. Seems to be righting itself but I'm on bread and flat lemonade for another day at least...

Tomorrow morning we're heading off in a rented 4WD with driver and guide to Sapa in the North West. It's a six day trip and it's more off the tourist trail so we're unlikely to see another net cafe until we get back to Hanoi. We're sharing the car with two pommies we've been hanging out with.

Tonight we went and saw the Vietnamese Water Puppets. Quite an amazing show. This was one of the features of last year's Sydney Festival but at 20,000 dong (under US$2) it was quite a bit cheaper than the AUD$70 it cost in Sydney.

Anyway, more when I have more time and we get back from Sapa.

Back in Hanoi

Well we got back to Hanoi tonight after six days travelling around the North West of Vietnam. We've seen a lot of minority hill tribe villages and had a hell of a lot of fun. We also have sore bums from five days in a 4WD and crappy roads. Great fun though!

Tomorrow is a rest day and then we go to Halong Bay and Cat Ba for three days. I'll write some more about our adventures tomorrow.

Still having fun!