Monthly Archives: August 2008
All I wanted to do was find out how to eat Pho properly. So I went onto You Tube and searched for Pho. I watched and learned, then I thought I’d have a quick look at Vietnamese food on You Tube. Almost immediately, a clip of a dog being roasted on a spit came up. Cue mild nausea. Then there was a clip where two guys are eating dog while a dog yaps in the background. “Fido can come to the funeral of his friend,” they said, or something to that effect, before laughing. I thought of our late, beloved family dog and got angry. It’s not right for me to judge this, though. I know that in different countries we eat different things, and the French and Italians think nothing of eating horse meat but as I wasn’t raised to think of a horse or a dog as food, I find this more than a bit squeamish.
One Vietnamese person wrote on You Tube that even the Vietnamese can find eating dog difficult, but it’s affordable meat for them which is why dog stays on the menu. I then thought I’d better find out what else they eat in Vietnam, just so I can try to recognise it and steer clear.
This is my list so far:
- Rats, which they hunt in fields with dogs
- Turtle soup, turtle blood wine and turtle bile wine
- Snake, snake blood wine, snake wine (no blood involved in the latter)
- Chicken blood soup (by now I’m realising that there really isn’t much they don’t eat in Vietnam and they obviously use every possible part of the animal)
- Monkey balm wine, made from their bones
- Fried tarantula
- Live grubs, still squirming (like Witchety grubs in Australia)
- Lizards, which are skinned alive
- Snails – not so bad. I can eat those. Did you know that most escargots served in France were raised at snail farms in China?
- And the best by far: worms. Even though the writhing mass looks like earth worms, they are in fact fresh water things with legs so technically they’re not worms but as I can’t see the legs in the clip, they’re as good as worms to me. They’re only available at market in autumn for one month and they’re mixed with all sorts of other ingredients to make fried patties, kind of like a worm burger. It’s probably tasty if you don’t know what it is beforehand.
These menu items do not, however, shake my fascination for Vietnam. I’m still finding it absorbing in a great many ways, although I do find that sticking to fish is the most sensible option, especially as it’s so fresh. This hasn’t been hard to do because I’m semi-vege anyway.
Returning to You Tube for more gory-eating videos before we left, I found Andrew Zimmern, presenter of Bizarre Foods for The Travel Channel. This man calls the above list “exotic edibles” and will eat just about anything in the name of culinary education. He’s braver than me.
For the first in Zimmern’s series of six on Vietnamese cuisine, click on this clip. It shows that seriously, just about every part of a snake is used in Vietnamese cooking, and he says that Hanoi is a foodie culture “with attitude”. In my book, that’s a complete understatement, but I guess you need to see it to believe it!
Quite by chance, before leaving on our long-awaited trip I caught an episode of the Hairy Bikers where the bearded lads ‘do’ Vietnam.
For any of you who haven’t had the pleasure of watching the Hairy Bikers on TV, Si and Dave are a pair of cooking enthusiasts who travel the world on their motorbikes, making meals by the roadside, or in one particular episode, in the shade of a tree in the middle of Africa. They then feed their new local pals the Hairy Biker version of local cuisine. This really is a cookery show with a difference.
See below for the Vietnam episode’s summary, which I cheekily lifted from their website:
Saigon’s a foodie paradise, but two-wheeled chaos rules… Going with the traffic flow, Si & Dave cook shrimp & pork on sugar cane in the middle of a frenzied ferry landing, then chow down on Vietnam War fare: deep-fried scorpions, coconut worms, and a part of a goat that wouldn’t make it onto most menus. Biking on up the coast, they discover the delicious national dish pho, and crispy Hué pancakes cooked in the street below the mysterious Cham towers. But by the time they reach Hoi An, we’re down to one Hairy Biker; Si has broken his foot, which leaves Dave pedaling a very large Geordie around in a rickshaw. How’re they going to get to Hanoi, now that Si can’t ride his motorbike?
Si’s broken foot forces our Hairy Bikers onto the world’s slowest train, crawling towards Hanoi (luckily there’s scorched dried squid for snacks). In Hué, Dave manages to pedal Si’s rickshaw to the Emperors Palace, to cook Paddy-Field Pork, Spring Rolls and Sticky Rice in a monsoon. Then it’s on to Hanoi and the delights of a motorized handicapped cart, ferrying the boys between two extremes of Vietnamese cuisine: French super-chef Didier’s mouth-watering buffet, and a local bar’s own street-food surprise (Si thinks it’s duck, Dave thinks it’s suckling pig. Both are wrong). Their final destination is the stunning Ha Long Bay, to grill Cha Ca fish and make Crab and Fish Noodle Soup on a junk. With two beautiful Vietnamese twins serenading them with harp music, our weary adventurers experience heaven at last…
I saw the second part, with Si-the-invalid being pedalled around in a rickshaw by patient Dave. What better way to deal with a broken foot and being unable to jump on a motorbike? The boys visited a street café to try the local Hanoi delicacies, but what was that platter of unidentifiable meat? Dog. That’s right, the boys were served steaming pieces of dog. Blurgh. I immediately lost my appetite for anything that once had legs.
Dave being, as ever, a good sport and not wanting to offend the sweet-faced waiter, chomped on a bit of deceased woof-woof and pronounced the taste a cross between duck and pork. However, Si’s face said it all. That was one dish they would not be finishing.
I have to thank you for that information, Dave, as it has removed any need to eat dog in order to know what it tastes like. You may rest assured that on our trip to Vietnam I will be avoiding meals that consist of anything that may once had raised its leg by a tree or been called ‘Fido’.
Monsieur and I are currently on a two-week tour of Vietnam. It’s pretty thrilling, considering we just arrived in Hanoi today and so far the fascination is huge, the public is not necessarily a fan of European faces unless they bring money into their lives, the food is great and crossing the road is frankly suicidal. Speaking of money, I barely had time to work out the Thai currency (roughly 60 Baht to the pound) before we hopped across to Vietnam where it’s a great many thousands of Dong to the pound. My brain is barely keeping up.
I have a few posts on their way (pending access to the internet) concerning Vietnamese cuisine. ‘If you can catch it, you can eat it’ is one motto I’ve come across during research for this trip. Luckily I haven’t seen any roasting dogs yet because I would probably have an Epic Moment if I did, but we have already come across quite a few people with handicaps, none of whom have time to sit back and feel sorry for themselves; they’re all out there working in different ways, mostly selling souvenirs. One was blind with a seamless patch of healed skin where one eye should have been. The poor chap was playing music for small change. Another was completely legless, dressed in the popular army green fatigues and selling postcards from his cyclo, which he must have had to pedal with his hands. A misshapen woman spoke to us in perfect English as she tried to lure us into her shop. Those are just a few of the faces we’ve come across so far. You have to be incredibly tough not to bankrupt yourself by not handing out all your cash to these folk. We have no idea of how lucky we are.
Will write more soon. Monsieur and I are off to Halong Bay tomorrow morning (early!!). If you haven’t watched it recently, rent a copy of Indochine starring Catherine Deneuve. Halong Bay is where the slaves are sent for auction. Hopefully, we’ll escape without being E-bayed to the highest bidder/s!
Will write more soon…
Monsieur and I are currently in Hanoi, enjoying the fight to cross the road without being crushed by mopeds, kidnapped by cyclo pedallers or shanghai-ed for photos by women with baskets balancing off their shoulders. We’ve had a couple of enlightening days in Bangkok, including a visit to see The Golden Buddha, the Grand Palace (wow) and the Weekend Market. It was hot hot hot and there’s a lot to tell when we get back, especially concerning a certain driver named Daeng.
Until then, here’s an old Bangkok song that Daeng kindly sang to us in his car yesterday:
To add to my retro eighties You Tube travel series I thought One Night in Bangkok from the musical, Chess, would be a suitable choice. Then I realised there was more than one version.
There’s the full 1985 original version:
There’s the downright WRONG version:
(Does anyone else find it a bit disconcerting to watch a little girl dancing to this in her pink wig and mini-dress? Odd. Seriously odd.)
And there’s the techno version featuring the crash scene from Lost:
There are also various other techno and remix versions, but that’s enough of one song for now.
Last weekend I spent an afternoon having fun with eighties’ retro tracks on You Tube. Out of the blue I decided to watch Toni Basil’s 1982 hit, Oh Mickey:
That in turn reminded me of Gwen Stefani’s 2005 hit, Hollaback Girl… (it’s all about cheerleaders, apparently),
which made me think about the second series of Heroes (Series 1 motto: Save the cheerleader, save the world) which was pretty disappointing compared to the first. Apparently it’s because the Hollywood screenwriters’ strike happened during the making of this series so all the good writing went flying out the window, kinda like Flying Man, Nathan Petrelli. At least the cheerleader, Claire ‘Bear’ Bennet, survives to make the third series, which will hopefully be better made than the last.
It’s amazing where one eightie’s hit will take you…
Next on the last-day-in-Langkawi hit-list was Tanjung Rhu, an island shaped like a junk, as in boat. It appears in lots of advertising media, not just for Malay products, and the natural beauty of the area surrounding the island is definitely worth the visit.
On the way to Tanjung Rhu, we passed a couple of other popular Langkawi resorts: The Datai, reputed for its beachfront luxury, and The Four Seasons, hiding behind a formidable wall exuding the wealth of its guests (don’t ask me how a wall exudes such things; just trust me that this one does).
As we approached Tanjung Rhu beach, we first stopped at a fishing village where the boats were as colourful as the people were friendly. All we needed to do with our cameras was point and shoot. The location and subject matter took care of the rest.
At Tanjung Rhu beach, we were met with a clutch of beach-shack stalls, bright sarongs flapping away like curtains in the warm sea air, beachwear displayed next to ice cream vendors. We weren’t prepared for the beauty of the beach. White sand piled up in gentle dunes and the island itself, exactly like the silhouette of an old-style junk. We sat on the beach for a while. It was almost deserted until a group of teenagers walked near us; boys and girls laughing and chattering away. The only difference between them and teenagers anywhere else was their clothing – no bikinis or beach shorts here. They wore trendy jeans or trousers with tunic tops covering their arms. The girls looked fresh-faced and pretty in their pastel headscarves; one had used diamante butterfly barettes to hold hers in place. That’s one of the things I so like about Malaysia – the veil is a definite part of life here but its use is colourful, fun and feminine, as opposed to its dark, oppressive cousins elsewhere in the world. The girls of Malaysia can still be girls. They don’t have to hide themselves inside black curtains.
When visiting Tanjung Rhu, the habit is to walk to the island. Off came our shoes as we paddled out to the big junk, knee-deep in water at times. A scattered trail of people were making the same pilgrimage, splashing away on the seemingly endless trek. For ages the island didn’t seem to get any closer, in spite of the many footsteps taken towards it, but at last we got there and I have to say that on arrival it was somewhat of an anti-climax. At the island, there wasn’t much to do apart from say we’d been there, so back we trudged, sand softly squishing between our toes, making it onto the beach just in time before the high tide rushed in after us to snap at our heels.
Eventually, we made it to Kuah, parking near the sea terminal where ferries from Penang arrive. The massive eagle statue stood on a landing facing the sea, its wings aloft as if mid-flight. As far as tacky goes, this was pretty bad, yet girls were jostling for position against the bird’s giant claws, posing for photos as if born into a fashion shoot – hands on jutted hips, pouting lips, expertly tousled hair. Not me. SO not me. Those claws were for hiding behind, not posturing upon.
By now, the sky was growing dark with rain clouds and all that threat of storm water was making us jiggle so into the terminal we went, in desperate search of public conveniences. These we found, with a small Ringgit charge for use and a veiled woman, mop in hand, tending to the on-floor water leakage in the ladies. (Monsieur had a man with a mop in the gents, naturally.) Now that the jiggling and uncomfortable thoughts of waterfalls had subsided, Monsieur and I quickly browsed the terminal’s shopping centre. There were lots and lots of duty free shops, as Langkawi is a duty free port. Doesn’t that cancel itself out? Doesn’t duty free become regular local prices if the whole area is duty free? I wondered. Perhaps not. Showing the discounts from recommended retail prices must drive in the business.
As we hit the road again, headed for Pelangi, the clouds rolled together, thunder clapping above us and rain falling in sheets. This was real, drenching, South-East Asian rain, so vital for the land but rather stressful to drive in. Monsieur and I leaned close to the windscreen, trying to see the way ahead. The jeep’s windscreen wipers weren’t made for this sort of downpour. We couldn’t see much at all. Pot holes added to the adventure of our drive back to the resort, and probably added to the wear on the jeep’s suspension from the feel of it. There in the blur was the local night market, but we wouldn’t be visiting tonight. Not in this weather. It’s one outing we would not be crossing off our to-do-list.
Eventually, we turned into the Resort, thankful to be alive. We’d had a couple of near misses which are liable to happen when your view of the road has diminished to Mister McGoo standards. To celebrate, we booked into the Spice Market for dinner, our stomachs roaring, only this time we’d be avoiding local cuisine and tucking into European fare with a glass of wine or two (wine costs the earth in Langkawi so this was definitely a special occasion). Exhausted, we ordered fresh green salads and creamy salmon pasta as the rain played percussion on the roof above. The cats shivered in dark corners; just like cats everywhere, they’re not that happy in the wet. As for me and my dear, French Monsieur, we were safe from the rain, for now.
For our last day in Langkawi, Monsieur and I decided to rent a jeep so we could scout the island for anything we may have missed. Luckily, there weren’t any jeeps available for a couple of hours; the migraine that had been threatening to go full-blown, although still not an absolute head-cracker, had not reacted well to the previous evening with New Best Friend and free-flow beers in the Pelangi Lounge. I lay on a sun-lounger, closed my eyes and prayed for the Malaysian version of nurofen to work. Trust me to leave home without my trusty ibuprofen. Never again.
The rest and quiet did the world of good so I no longer felt like an axe was breaking through my skull by the time we jumped in the jeep. Off we went with a vague sort of tourist map of Langkawi, heading for Oriental Village. We drove past some sights which were now familiar following our chauffeur-driven tour – the falling-down resort, the airport, the marina and the three man-made islands. As we drove up into the jungle, leaving the coast behind, we hit a Langkawi traffic jam, holding us up all of about ten minutes (this is nothing if you live in London, so as we sat at a standstill, Monsieur and I sang along happily to Brady Bunch songs on the radio. Okay, well perhaps it wasn’t the Brady Bunch, per se, but happy songs all the same).
At the head of the jam, caused by roadworks turning a dual carriageway into a single lane, there was a roadsign I’d never seen before. It showed a group of monkeys, indicating that monkeys crossed the road around here and therefore constituted a hazard to drivers. Imagine this: you’re running late for work and call your boss to explain. The excuse?
“Sorry, I’m going to be a bit late. I ran over a monkey as I reversed out of the drive.”
Brilliant. I must try that one some time.
We pulled into the car park at Oriental Village, a purpose-built visitor complex at the base of the Mount of Mat Chinchang. As always, the hot, humid air hit us like a wall as we got out of the air-conditioned jeep. (Come to think of it, air conditioning and jeeps sound wrong together.) We were soon jetting up the mountain in a modern cable car to view Langkawi from high. At the top of the Mount there are viewing platforms from which you can take fantastic photos. There’s also a pedestrian suspension bridge like a snake of steel cables between peaks. I didn’t make it very far along the bridge because it trembled (as suspension bridges are liable to do) and seemed to hang in thin air. It was also a long, rocky, bushy way down to the ground below. Chicken-licken here walked back to the non-shaky platform and stayed there, feet firmly planted on a surface that did not shake.
Back at the village, we visited the gift shops. They were filled with everything you’d expect from such places – batik gifts, local craftware, prayer wall-hangings, breakables, souvenir spoons and the universally popular snow shakers, making me wonder why people insist on manufacturing snow shakers for places where it doesn’t snow. I was now on a mission to find tacky postcards to add to my collection. So far on this trip I hadn’t managed to find a single one; not even an ancient seventies picture of a hotel! Here I managed to find some sickly greetings postcards featuring soft-focus kittens and a whole lot of pink, but that was about as successful as my quest got.
Walking through the village, we saw an elephant taking people for rides. I’ve never ridden an elephant and I’d love to, but we didn’t have enough time so I’ve put this on the future adventure wish list along with swimming with dolphins. It was pretty quiet at the Village, considering. As we sat with a bite of lunch (fish ‘n’ chips for me, something resembling food called a chicken chop for Monsieur – everything else was closed), I noticed women in broad-brimmed straw hats quietly tending the gardens around the Village. There was something so humble about them but the plants all looked luscious so they must have been doing something right with the elephant dung.
Before leaving Oriental Village, I dragged Monsieur into the petting zoo, where huge bunnies lay sprawled out in the shade and deer sat watching us, calmed by the heat. It was obviously animal siesta hour. We could quite easily have curled up under a tree ourselves at that point, but it would have been a crime to leave Langkawi without paying homage to the giant eagle statue in Kuah or visiting the beach at Tenjung Rhu. We had places to go and photos to take. Back in the jeep we jumped, heading off down the road with two pairs of keen eyes watching for monkeys crossing.
Monsieur and I may have been travelling à deux through Malaysia, but we were never short of dining companions. One night, a waiter told me the name of the umbrella trees which were dotted around the resort, looking like something out of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. ‘It’s a Rhu tree,’ he told us. ‘the native tree of Langkawi.’ So some nights, we learned new things from the hotel staff, who were tirelessly patient with our questions.
Every night we spent on Langkawi, the tail-less cats of Pelangi Resort skulked near the tables of diners. We chatted to them, coaxing them closer for a tidbit or two, but careful not to alert the waiters to what we (and others) we doing, lest they chase them away with a “Wah wah!” warning in Malay. We’d already seen it in action on several occasions and felt sympathetic towards the feline scavengers, but the waiters were under orders from management that the guests not be disturbed by anything with a tail, no matter how stumpy, so “Wah wah!” they did.
One evening, as we sat at a table on the beachfront at dusk, we watched what can only be described as a ballet of crabs. They danced all over the sand, braving the beach now that giant interlopers had left for the day. In and out of their holes they went, sometimes slow, often in a flash. The timid dancers edged out, suspicious head and goggle eyes first, waiting until they were sure the coast was clear before exiting the safety of their burrow. Others held claws, dancing together, or was that a crab fight we witnessed? There were chases up and down the sand, leaving little tracks, barely perceptible now the sun had gone. The performance mesmerised. This was the theatre of nature playing out before us.
The Female Bore at the table next to us would never have noticed such a spectacle as she definitely couldn’t see past her own nose, let alone as far as the lowly crabs. ‘Crass’ and ‘braggard’ spring to mind when I think of her. She and her husband foisted their uninvited conversation on the young couple to their other side, who obviously wanted to be left alone, but there was no chance of that happening. How lucky we were that night; it could so easily have been us on the receiving end of Female Bore’s monologues plural. First she talked about holidays.
“So is this your first time to Malaysia?” she asked
“Yes, it is. We’re on our honeym…” came the interrupted reply. Female Bore was only asking the question to seem vaguely as if she cared about someone other than herself. This was a waste of time, really. She was a dire act when it came to feigning interest in something. The young couple were trying to tell her (in vain) that they were on their honeymoon, but F.B. wasn’t interested in their story. Off she went:
“This is our third time in Malaysia but our first in Langkawi. We travel a lot and we’ll be back again next year. It’s quite nice here at Pelangi but I think the Four Seasons might be better next time. The chalets here are getting a bit tired, you know?” That plastic nose crinkled up in well-practised snobbishness.
The chalets weren’t ‘tired’ at all. MOST unfair to the resort, but the point wasn’t the condition of our rooms. Female Bore simply wanted to point out that they could afford the Four Seasons if they wanted to. Yawn. If she did but know it, F.B. was more effective than valium at bed-time.
There was no respite from our foghorn neighbour. We heard about every holiday she’d taken for the past decade and trust me, that’s a lot of holidays to get through without taking a breath. I started to worry that she wasn’t getting enough oxygen, but just as I was calculating how much brain damage she could do if she didn’t breathe soon, Female Bore changed the topic of conversation and I was about to see my jaw hitting the floor as she showed what a flashy cow she really was.
“Well, of course, we’ve been to Bali. Know it well, but it wasn’t right for this holiday. No, we haven’t been back since those dreadful bombings. Terribly tragic. Our friends lost their daughter in the attack and it took days to piece together her body parts. I mean, can you imagine? I think they identified her from her dental records in the end. What a horrible, horrible thing to happen. An arm here, a leg there, blood everywhere. Devastating for the families. Our friends went to that memorial in Bali recently. You know, it was on the news? Yes, well, they were there. With all those other poor, poor people who buried parts of their loved ones. I don’t know if there were any whole bodies to bury after that blast. Honestly. What is the world coming to?”
Took the words right out of my mouth. Just what IS the world coming to when people boast about knowing people who lost their lives in terrorist acts. I know that technically ‘boast’ isn’t correct in this context, but the one thing I can’t do on this blog is show the manner in which these words were spoken, and ‘boast’ would become a verb of great relevance if you could hear Female Bore in action, no matter what the subject at hand.
Luckily, not all evenings were like that. Far from it. But we did have a small issue with meal-crashing.
One night, we were at Niyom Thai, the Thai restaurant at the resort, when my New Best Friend from the island-hopping day, spotted us. He waved hello, jumped a low hedge and stood chatting to us about his day as our meal grew cold. The way that his eyes darted from our faces to our bowls of Tom Yam indicated that he wouldn’t decline an invitation to join us, and on another day perhaps we would have done just that, but that particular day my head was killing me with the threat of a migraine so making small talk wasn’t high on my list of priorities. We promised to catch up with him another night and eventually, he got the hint and left us to slurp our cold tom yam.
We kept our promise and caught up with New Best Friend on the night that we finally decided to visit the Pelangi Lounge. There he was, sitting at a table with a couple of free seats, staring expectantly at the stage. He waved us over.
“Come and join me!” he beckoned, “my friends are singing tonight. They’re a pair of Thai girls, so pretty, and so talented.” (My guess was that NBF’s idea of what consitutes talent might be a tad different to mine.)
NBF made it sound as if he and the Thai girls had known each other for generations, but the way they ignored him when they got up on stage indicated otherwise. They sang covers and they sang well, as the beer flowed and the lounge filled up. Soon, there wasn’t a spare seat anywhere and the barmen were shaking cocktails in an endless stream of alcohol and miniature paper umbrellas.
The set ended and NBF beckoned to the singers. With a slight shrug of ‘whatever’, they joined us for a couple of minutes, but just as NBF started his rave review of their performance so far, they excused themselves to fetch a drink and once that was achieved, sat with a group on the other side of the lounge.
Poor NBF. I almost felt sorry for him. He must have noticed that his interest in the Thai singers wasn’t exactly reciprocated, and instead of changing the subject, he instead continued his version of a Thai Singer Appreciation Society.
“Yes, well, the girls have their friends here tonight. That’s who they’re sitting with now. Mmmm. They told me they might not have as much time as usual to chat during their breaks. I’m sure they’ll be with us for the next one.”
NBF’s eyes didn’t leave the girls for longer than a few seconds. He reminded me of one of those cartoon dogs who salivate like Niagara Falls as they follow the perfect poodle with the pink ribbon all the way down the street, in spite of being the doofiest dog on the block. Feeling far from comfortable as we observed NBF behaving more like a seventeen year old than a seventy year old, Monsieur and I tried to leave on a few occasions, but each time NBF pushed us back into our chairs as he hailed a waiter to order another round of drinks. Just prior to the point where we risked falling under the table from that heady mix of local lager and fatigue, we finally managed to settle up and return to our room, by which time Monsieur and I were feeling more than a little buzzed. It would certainly seem we were turning into bar lightweights and the surreal evening we’d just experienced hadn’t helped. That was the last time we saw NBF because we left Pelangi the following day. I often wonder what happened to him. I think he meant well, even if he was annoying and more than a bit deluded about his attractiveness to women.
PS – in case you’re wondering why the singers at Pelangi were Thai and not Malay, it’s because Malaysia is a Moslem country so it isn’t deemed appropriate for Malay women to sing pop songs for a crowd in a skimpy outfit. However, Thai women are not Moslem, so the rules change. They hop across the border into Malaysia, where there is plenty of resort and bar work for attractive non-Malay girls who can hold a tune.
It’s been quite a week getting through Vietnamese red tape. One of my designated tasks in preparation for our trip to Vietnam has been organising our visas. Citizens from most countries in the world need a visa to enter Vietnam. There’s a Vietnamese Embassy in London, so a couple of weeks ago, I started doing the paperwork for a visit to their visas office so that Monsieur and I don’t end up being returned to England as rejected goods.
As anyone who’s ever applied for a visa will know, embassy queues are unpredictable and I hate not knowing how long I’ll be away from work if i have to undertake this sort of errand. Groaning to myself as I realised how much time this was going to take, I googled Vietnam visas and lo’ and behold, found the online answer to my visa prayers. It’s now possible to apply for your visa through an online agent, pay a processing fee and print an authorisation letter with a special code for presentation when you arrive at one of the international airports in Vietnam. You’ll need to present 2 passport photos with the letter and a visa fee, but even added to the processing fee, this system still works out way cheaper than doing it the embassy way here in London.
The first part went well. I sent through a completed online form with our trip and passport details and almost immediately received a confirmation of receipt. A few hours later, an e-mail arrived saying we’d been approved for entry into Vietnam, giving me details of how to pay the processing fee either by Western Union or Xoom.com.
You guessed it – this is where my problems began. The Western Union online money transfer system all seemed to be going swimmingly until a page appeared telling me to call them to confirm the transaction. I did so, answered about 30 or so questions regarding the transaction and was then told firmly that it had been denied. I called my bank to ask why; they told me the transaction was showing as confirmed and recommended calling Western Union again. W U told me that this confusion often happened with banks and that I would receive my money back in seven to ten days. If I wanted it sooner, I should apply to my bank as my money was currently sitting in a suspense account. I called my bank again. They told me that only Western Union could release the funds from the suspense account. The only suspense there was in this situation was going to be when I could expect my money back. I called Western Union again and flipped out.
“so you’re telling me that even though your system was always going to refuse my transaction, you took my money anyway and now I can’t have it back for seven to ten days? That’s theft. You must be making a fortune out of this scam. It’s my money, you took it, you won’t approve me to send it where I need it, you’ll get the interest from it for a week and a half and you tell me it’s my fault for pressing the SEND button?”
That’s right. They told me it was my fault. I won’t go on. My blood pressure’s rising as I write this. In summary, I was put onto one of those supervisors who’s been thoroughly trained in how to speak with hyperventilating hysterical customers, which only enraged me more as I have been through that sort of training myself so I can hear all the tell-tale phrases.
I called my bank again. Explaining my frustration, I was then told that it was all my bank’s fault. The fraud alert computer spotted my attempt to send money to Vietnam, a place with which I have no relationship according to my account history, so the card was blocked immediately. The bank clerk unblocked it for me and logged the dates I’d be travelling in case this happened again. I logged onto Xoom.com, tried to send across the visa money again and was again blocked. I called the bank again. They told me that my card had been blocked once more because the previous clerk with whom I’d dealt had logged me as being in Vietnam already so the computer thought a UK transaction was fraudulent. The account was unblocked for a second time but even after another hour I still couldn’t get the money to go through. Fed up, I stopped trying.
The following day, I logged onto Xoom again. This time, thank Heavens, the transaction arrived safely in Ho Chi Minh City and Monsieur and I will receive our visa confirmation letters before we leave. Now I just have to get my money back from Western Union.
Started transfer attempt number 1 – 2.15pm day 1
Successfully completed transfer - 12.38pm day 2
Calls to Western Union -3
Calls to bank – 4
Western Union refused transactions – 1
Xoom.com refused transactions – 6
Xoom.com accepted transactions -1
Blood pressure reading after third call to Western Union -180/120, i.e. dangerous.
Western Union fee for sending $36US to Vietnam – £12.00 GBP (rip off)
Xoom fee for sending $36US to Vietnam – $5.99 US (far cheaper)
Would I recommend Western Union? – NO.
Advice – call your bank before attempting an unusual transaction to make sure it isn’t blocked.
Before I write this post, I have to show you a mullet-and-a-half from our Australian cousins. I only know about this thanks to Razzbuffnik, who sent me the link:
Free-Alcohol-Blogger (F.A.B.) and I met last night at Marcello’s, an unpretentious hair salon in Red Lion Street in Holborn. We were greeted with complimentary glasses of Buck’s Fizz (another notch on the Free-Alcohol tally), shampooed, chopped and blow-dried into much tidier selves. Unfortunately, Cathy-Jog-Blog wasn’t able to join us as she wasn’t feeling strong enough for a haircut. This isn’t surprising given her recent expedition to hang out in cold and rainy Cornwall with some donkeys and cows who apparently didn’t seem too people-literate.
The cut was a success AND a bargain at £29.00. I didn’t think you could get a haircut in London for £29.00 anymore. Thankfully there were no Sheena Easton moments and I now look more than ever like my avatar, apart from the fact that I do not walk around with a constant wink, contrary to blogosphere belief.
With our newly-groomed tresses, F.A.B. and I went to celebrate with a glass of wine at Truckles, a wine bar hidden away in a courtyard near the British Museum. There we were joined by two of her university pals, Kevin and Leo, who taught me a lot on my personal quest for geek-dom, such as why 3-mobile is the best mobile phone provider (I need further convincing on that one) and how you can get free access to WiFi when you travel through signing up to Fon. The chaps also told us how much they pay for their haircuts: Kevin £7.00 and Leo £8.00. Why oh why is it so darned expensive to be female?
Although Truckles was a good place to take respite from frantic Friday-night London, we were asked to leave at 10pm because the neighbouring residents apparently complain about noise from the bar after a certain bed-time-for-the-boring. We can’t understand why the neighbours don’t just use the courtyard as their front room and hang out down there on the fine days when such places are so popular in London. I mean, why buy a flat that overlooks a wine bar courtyard if you’re going to object to some evening chatter? That’s what I’d call a very silly move indeed.