Budapest to Slovakia

This morning we found our taxi driver asleep in his car outside our hotel, which was kind of funny. What wasn’t funny was being taken the long way to the station  – about 3 times as far as we’d walked the previous day to buy our tickets. Le sigh.

Early morning light at Keleti station.

Still, we found our train and, after being asked to move seats, realised that there was an allocation system that we weren’t part of so we found some unoccupied seats and got comfortable. Hungarian trains are pretty nice and the toilet was decent too. Unlike toilets on Vietnamese trains, which are full of water. Full on a train. Don’t get me started.

Anyhoo. The hostel website was full of confidently brief directions on how to get there via public transport so we didn’t do all the research we should’ve. Note to selves and other travelers: if you’re taking trains in non-English speaking countries don’t just work out where you’re getting on and off, look at the last stop on your line because that’s what the signs will say. No problem with our first train as it stopped at Kosice on the border. Unfortunately our next stop, Poprad, wasn’t the final stop on that line so in the 15 minutes we had to make the connection there was a bit of stressful hurrying about trying to work out which train we wanted. Not ideal when you’re carrying all your worldly possessions on your back.

We found the right train, though, and then got off at Poprad. About 20 minutes before Poprad the view goes from flat fields to OMG! MOUNTAINS! Big, jagged, snow covered mountains. Since this is something I can’t ever recall seeing in such magnitude and at such close proximity previously I was very impressed.

With luck and our last few euros we hopped on the bus to Zdiar and made it to our hostel, the Ginger Monkey. This place was recommended by our friend Ben, who was here a while back. Probably not at the same time of year though – it’s just us and one other guy here at the moment, with a girl arriving tomorrow. I don’t mind a bit of quiet though and it’s a stunning place to have a break.

With no restaurants open during weekdays in the off season, we walked down to the local mini mart with the hostel’s dog, Wally, and bought ingredients for tuna pasta. This will be the second from-scratch meal I’ll have made in two months.

After bringing our food back we took both dogs for a wander, hoping to find the river walk. Miraculously, in a village with two streets, we managed not to find it and lost both dogs along the way. No doubt they’re off greeting all the other dogs we passed – there’s more dogs here than people if our walk was anything to go by.

I’m saving the mountain photos for tomorrow. Tonight will be maybe a movie and then definitely and early night. Hopefully there’ll be blue skies for a nice long walk tomorrow.

Farewell Hoi An, Hello Saigon.

Our last full day in Hoi An was a busy one. I spent the morning doing a cooking course by myself, that is, without Luke but with about 10 other people – 4 English backpackers and an Indian/Malay family with a couple of little girls.

I was picked up from our hotel by taxi and then joined the rest of the group at the local Hoi An markets for a tour and to buy the food we would cook in our class. The markets were colourful and interesting but our translator and guide was a fairly young girl who hadn’t been doing the job long and could not even tell me how much a bread roll cost. She said she’d never bought one, which I found rather surprising. She had to ask the man who was with us, who was doing all the actual buying but didn’t speak English. Turns out they should cost about 3,000 dong (about 15c AUD). Interesting, considering we’d been paying between 10 and 20,000 per roll in Hanoi. It’s hard not to get the feeling that you can’t trust anyone when you’re being charged more than 3 times the proper price. The next day Luke and I tried a new strategy – walk up with the amount you’re willing to pay in your hand and ask for the amount you want and the sight of cash seems to work much better than asking ‘how much?’ and getting told an astronomical figure. It just takes a while to work out what is an appropriate amount to offer.

Anyhoo, from the market we boarded a boat that seemed to be furnished with bolted-down dining chairs and headed down the river for 45 minutes. There was a reasonable amount to see but it would’ve been nice to have some information about the industry we were passing and the history of the area. Our guide mainly played with her phone.

We got out of our boat amid a plantation of water coconuts and got into two smaller canoes and were paddled a bit further between the palms, getting a closer look at the trees and the grungy slicks of god-knows-what on the surface of the river. It was nice and peaceful though and I spotted some fish in the water. Fish in Vietnam must be the aquatic equivalents of cockroaches considering the filth they survive in.

Our next stop was a hut where we tried our hands at milling, threshing and grinding rice to produce rice milk by traditional methods. I found that pretty interesting – a lot of very hard work! We collected the rice milk to use in one of the dishes we were going to make.

Last stop was behind the hut and through some vegetable gardens. A large open air structure thatched with palm leaves but, thankfully, containing some powerful fans. It was stinking hot weather. Not so bad on the river but where we were was stifling. I’d brought my fan and got some envious looks when I pulled it out. If you’re traveling to Asia (or anywhere, I guess) in Summer I highly recommend having one on you at all times. They makes a huge difference.

Our 4 dishes:

Vietnamese spring rolls.

The emphasis here was on presentation.

Vietnamese crepes.

The crepe mix was primarily rice milk and coconut cream. It was very much like a taco shell that we filled with delicious, crunchy salad greens. Would love to make this when I get home.

Beef salad.

We made a beef stock and then added spices and poured it over the cold noodles. Delicious!

Pho Bo (beef noodle soup)

A staple of the Vietnamese diet and particularly tasty when you cook it yourself. So easy!

We watched a chef prepare each dish then had our own station to go back to for practice. We got to eat everything straight away (yay!) and there were lots of breaks to chat and drink the endless refills of passionfruit juice.

We headed home in a taxi (much faster) and I really enjoyed the whole experience. It could only have been improved with more information and better English on behalf of our guide but she was extremely friendly and positive so that makes up for a lot.

On my return to Hoi An I dashed to AoBaBa for one of my many fittings and then to Yali for my coat. I got dirty looks at Yali for being many hours later than they asked but there was nothing I could do. To cut a long story short, my coat was finished that evening and looked fantastic. Possibly a tiny bit tight (if worn with several layers) but that’s more motivation to lose the weight I’ve put on this year.

The gob-smackingly superb building that houses AoBaBa. It’s very old (over 500 years) but maintained beautifully and shows what a strong influence Chinese and Japanese culture had on the town, which was once the greatest trading port in eastern Asia. This is one of two courtyards in the building.

I had my last fitting at AoBaBa the next morning and was extremely pleased with the results. I’d taken a steampunk-ish styled pattern to them and I think they really enjoyed making it. Certainly Kathy (my fitter and sales assistant) was visibly excited about me trying on the finished product and took a photo and called all the other girls over to have a look when it was done, telling me that she had never made anything like it before. That was nice! If you’re reading this and thinking of heading to Hoi An to get clothes made do go to AoBaBa and ask for Kathy. The assistant who helped me at Yali was good but I don’t think she cracked a smile the whole time we were there. Be aware that if you go and get clothes made whoever you speak to first will probably end up working very closely with you, so wander around the store until you see someone you like the look of then go up them and ask for their help. Working with a happy person makes the process so much more enjoyable!

Kathy and I. Watching her trying to reach my shoulders to pin things together made me feel like a giant. All the Vietnamese women are incredibly dainty and elegant, especially in their traditional ao dai.

This costume comes in 3 parts, the blue coat, purple skirt and a black and white bustier. Now to figure out where to wear it!

We spent our last evening taking photos, eating at Cargo again and visiting the ‘Good and Cheap Bar’ in the hope of grabbing Phi, the owner, for an interview. Sadly we only spotted him once and the vibe was nowhere near as good as the previous visit so we had a couple of drinks then went back to the hotel.

The exterior of the ‘Good and Cheap Bar’.

The morning after (yesterday morning, in fact, although it feels like a week ago) we had our final fittings, collected our coats, left our 12kgs of clothing and excess belongings to be mailed home by Kathy (for the bargain price of $70 dollars!!! It’ll take 3 months to get home but still…. $70!) and bought some supplies for the train. We checked out of our hotel and taxi’d to Da Nang ($19 if you’re curious, get your hotel to book a driver, a taxi is about $25) where we had a bit of lunch then boarded the train.

This time we had top bunks, which I didn’t think was so bad. We read, ate chip and cheese rolls out of our laps and watched the countryside roll past. We shared the cabin with a couple who had a little boy who was quite adorable and didn’t cry too much, thankfully.

In my usual dyslexic style, I’d read the train ticket and thought we got off at 5pm the next day. No, no. Turns out we got off at 5am. So we awoke to shouting and pointing and quickly got our gear together and jumped out into the hot and sticky Saigon dawn. Footage of the train will be in the next video. I neglected to take any photos. Oops!

The train to Da Nang (or not, as it turned out).

We’re sitting on the train from Hanoi to Da Nang. We are in a sleeping cabin, a ‘soft berth’. Apparently the beds are marginally thicker than the ‘hard berth’ beds and there are 4 to a cabin in 2 bunks.

As soon as we got on last night a family asked us to swap so they could all be together, which was fine. Luke and I moved to another cabin, which we ended up sharing with an older man and a grandmother with her granddaughter. They were very quiet room mates. I slept like a log – the beds on the train are much softer than the ones on the Halong Bay boat.

We had dinner before we got onboard at 11pm last night and bought some bread rolls and cheese to eat for breakfast. We also had to buy a cutlery set yesterday so we could slice the cheese and spread our margarine. Another thing I should’ve thought to bring.

Yesterday we had to check out of our hotel at midday, so we sat around in the morning doing research and various things on the internet then left our bags at the hotel and caught a taxi to Saint Honore, a bakery highly recommended on Trip Advisor. I thought that, while we were in Vietnam, we should check out the bakeries as they are reputed to be the best in Asia. Which isn’t saying much if my experiences in Thailand and Japan are anything to go by.

Saint Honore was lovely. Certainly not any better than any specialist bakery in Australia, but definitely a cut above the street bread in Hanoi, which only comes in white baguettes and white (rather sweet) loaves.

We bought ourselves some take away lunch then walked south around West Lake, where it became apparent that Vietnamese people will grow anything anywhere, anytime. Even the small squares of dirt by the side of major roads where an ornamental tree had been planted, was also filled with tomatoes or mint or something I didn’t recognise but was undoubtedly edible. We walked past an allotment right next to the Hanoi Intercontinental. The garden was probably the prettiest thing I’d seen in Hanoi. Rows of herbs and vegetables with tiny white cabbage moths fluttering everywhere, which probably wasn’t doing the garden any good but they looked lovely.

City allotment.

We headed through a Japanese temple then past the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which wasn’t open at the time. I’m not that into seeing dead bodies anyhow. Then to the Temple of Literature, the oldest University in Vietnam as it started in 1070 AD.

Flowers at the Japanese temple.

As we wandered around the central lake we were accosted by a group of young university students who asked if they could speak to us in English. We stood there for a while, laughing and chatting with them. More people gathered around to listen to what was going on and we ended up with a small crowd. We headed off after about half an hour and wandered through the back streets of the Old Quarter. The streets there are arranged by trade/goods, so if you’re looking for kitchenware you go to one particular street and all the shops sell saucepans etc.

We headed up to the cityview café for the last time to watch the sun go down and so I could take some long exposure shots of the traffic. We debated going to the place Sarah recommended but figured 19 floors up would be too high to get good light trails. Next time perhaps! It certainly did look nice in the photos.

A hand held 30 second exposure. Talk about a steady hand!

We picked up our gear then headed to a restaurant near the station where I finally tried Pho (pronounced ‘fur’). It was ok, but Luke and I both agreed that Bun Cha (BBQ pork in a thin soup) was much better.

Dinner was nice but made much more entertaining by the fact that we could see into the area where the waiters and waitresses were standing around and we watched them flirting we each other like high school kids and laughing lots. It was charming.

…ooo000ooo…

To jump forward in time, I am now writing from Hoi An, where we arrived last night. Our train journey ended in what we thought was Da Nang. We heard the announcement, gathered our bags and got off the train at the right time. Before we got off I asked the fellow in our compartment if this was Da Nang and he pointed to the exit, then I tried to ask another passenger who flat-out ignored me. So we jumped off. To cut a long story short, it wasn’t Da Nang, it was the previous stop, Hue, which we should’ve reached 2 hours prior. ARGH. We caught a private taxi into the town centre for $2.50 and then bought bus tickets for around $8 each. The bus was cramped with no airconditioning and took about 3 hours to get us to Hoi An.

We were both feeling pretty fed up when we got here but it turns out Hoi An is the prettiest place in Vietnam (in our experience). So clean and in such good condition it almost looks like the Disney version of what Vietnam should be. More on Hoi An later. With a million photos!