Category Archives: Thailand
When Monsieur and I travelled through Vietnam some time back, this fascinating country and its people had such a profound effect on me that I haven’t yet blogged about it. Every time I think of our journey, my mind fills with such a kaleidoscope of vistas and tastes and people and experiences that it overwhelms. But now, sixteen months later, I’m going to try to share our experiences.
To start with, here’s a synopsis of how we did it. We didn’t see everything that we wanted to see, because Vietnam is a big place with troublesome roads and slow trains and we only had two weeks within which to learn how to cross the roads and explore as much of the country as possible. The upshot of that is that there’s plenty to keep us busy when we go back one day. And we will go back one day. If I could wangle it, I’d go back right this minute.
GETTING THERE AND BACK:
Monsieur and I flew on Eva Air from London to Bangkok because direct flights from London to Vietnam are exorbitant and this way we’d both save money and see a little bit of Thailand. It’s significantly cheaper for UK residents to fly to Bangkok and then hop across to Vietnam on one of the region’s low cost airlines. In our case we flew Air Asia from Bangkok to Hanoi, and from Ho Chi Minh City back to Bangkok. Air Asia is cheap and efficient, but the baggage allowance is a meagre 15 kilos. Going out, this wasn’t a problem and my packed suitcase only weighed 10 kilos, which is somewhat of an achievement for this girl scout who likes to be prepared for all eventualities. Quite naturally, as we travelled about, Monsieur and I picked up more baggage weight in the form of clothes and gifts for family and friends, so that by the time we left Vietnam, our baggage excess was such that we had to pay a hefty $125 US dollars. The way we looked at it this was that once added to the cost of the flights themselves it just made the flights feel more regular in price as opposed to a real bargain. You have been warned.
Internally we flew Vietnam Airlines, which we found to be pretty good. We later found out that they have a terrible reputation but that wasn’t our experience at all. Had we had more time, we would have liked to try the train that travels up and down Vietnam, but unfortunately the journey times were too long to be practical for us.
So here’s what we got up to. It would be great if you pick out something that you’d like to hear about, leave it in the comments and I’ll write it up for you.
Day 1 – Arrive in Bangkok. Stay at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Swim off the travel grime and enjoy lovely buffet at the hotel.
Day 2 – Breakfast by the river. Hire a driver to take us around Bangkok for 5 hours for the equivalent of a 15 minute cab ride in London. We manage to take in the Golden Buddha, the Grand Palace and a vibrant weekend market before returning to the hotel. Cocktails at the Sirocco Bar with fantastic views over Bangkok and dinner at the Blue Elephant.
Day 3 – Fly to Hanoi. Have fun with immigration officials and ATMs at Hanoi airport. Stay at the beautiful Sofitel Metropole Hotel. Learn to cross streets without being mown down by a tidal wave of mopeds. Walk to old town via Hoan Kiem Lake. Visit Ngoc Son temple. Circle the lake. Dinner at the Spices Garden restaurant at the hotel.
Day 4 – Take tour to Halong Bay. Long day. Epic ingests an entire dish of MSG. By herself. And suffers the consequences.
Day 5 – Walk around Hanoi. Visit Temple of Literature, Hanoi Hilton. Just about evaporate in the heat and humidity.
Day 6 – Fly to Danang. Pass China Beach on way to Hoi An. Stay at Ha An Hotel. Lunch at Banana Leaf. Do walking tour of Old Town – temples, Japanese Bridge, a ‘real’ Vietnamese home etc. Visit Yaly tailors. Dinner at Mango Rooms.
Day 7 – Fitting at Yaly then a lazy day at nearby Cua Dai Beach. Lunch at the beach. Dinner at Brothers Café.
Day 8 – Fly to Nha Trang. Stay at Six Senses resort. Laze around at the beach and in the pool. Dinner and DVDs in our room. We need to slow down for a couple of days, and so we do just that.
Day 9 – All meals taken at the hotel. The much-needed chilling-out period after so much travelling helps a lot so we spend another day at the beach.
Day 10 – Travel by road to Dalat. Looks close on map. Takes hours each way. Visit our driver’s family shrine, rest stop in village, see Dalat train station, Prenn Falls. See coffee/ tapioca/sugar cane plantations. Afternoon at Dalat Palace Golf Club. Interesting drive back to Nha Trang with our fascinating driver. Much of our conversation is taken up by what Vietnamese eat, which is just about everything.
Day 11 – Another day chilling out. Vietnamese coffee rocks. We watch Vietnamese musicians at dinner. We also have a sunburn relief massage with fresh aloe vera. I’d never had a massage before. What total decadence!
Day 12 – Fly to Ho Chi Minh City. Stay at Majestic Hotel on Dong Khoi. It rains buckets. Visit the post office, haggle with street vendors, give thanks for safe travels at Notre Dame Cathedral. Walk to Reunification Palace. Dinner at M Bar with great views over river. That river is a floating highway, even at night.
Day 13 – take tour out of HCMC. Visit Cu Chi Tunnels and My Tho on the Mekong Delta. Boat ride to Ben Tre for lunch. Coconut candy factory, snakes and longboats. Cao Dai Temple. Lacquerware factory visit. Dinner with Adam from Vietnam Travel Notes – we go to Bin Thanh Market together. REALLY good night!
Day 14 – last day in Vietnam. Shopping in town. Lunch at Lemongrass. Dong Khoi. Back to the airport. Long delay because of riots in Bangkok. Stay at The Peninsula Hotel.
Day 15 – Fly home with a head full of wonderful, colourful memories of Vietnam.
+16 months – Epic finally gets around to blogging about it.
Following on from our ‘date’ at Sirocco, high above the bustle of Bangkok, Monsieur and I descended the sixty-something floors with ears popping in the express elevator and jumped in a cab to The Blue Elephant. Our driver looked more like a cutting edge DJ than a taxi driver (perhaps he was both?) with long black hair and some interesting man-bling. He didn’t really understand us. We definitely can’t speak Thai. Somehow, with some sign language and the restaurant’s business card, we finally made it to the two-storeyed colonial villa housing this international Thai food phenomenon.
The building itself was beautiful but it was dwarfed by the neighbouring high-rises. Its quaint charm made it look fragile. Once through the doors, though, we were transported. Well, sort of. The furniture and interiors were Thai all the way but, given that everyone else in the ground-floor dining room was Western, we felt a bit cliché, having been drawn to an obvious tourist mecca.
Once seated, we enjoyed our welcome drinks (which are always non-alcoholic tropical juice from a carton) and ordered. The rice was spooned out of a partitioned basket, slung over the shoulder of our waitress; in one side of the basket was white rice and in the other, brown. That definitely felt authentic.
We had prawns wrapped in leaves and soft shelled crab (my favourite when dining in this part of the world), and Thai curry and wiped our hands on hot towels scented with lemongrass. Naturally, we made the mistake of ordering wine which is always a rip off in Asia. We savoured it, knowing we may not be ordering any more for a while, but in reality, the local beer tastes good and is far better value. I’ve also been told that when travelling, you should always drink some local beer because it should be made with local water and is a relatively safe way of acclimatising your digestive system to a foreign place.
We couldn’t fault the food or the service. The Blue Elephant really was a slick operation, but it’s not great to sit surrounded by other tourists. It makes you feel like, well, a TOURIST. Gone in a flash is any sense of the intrepid traveller, which we’re all aspiring to be.
Then, on the way out a waitress handed me a long orchid in a tube. I’d heard of this happening at the London Blue Elephant, but as I’ve never been, I’ve never seen the rumour confirmed. Well, I was chuffed to bits. So chuffed, in fact, that when we left for Hanoi the following day, the orchid went with me. It survived nearly all of our travels in Vietnam, providing us with some sense of continuity and homeliness each time we changed centre. Only in Ho Chi Minh City did it start to wither. So thank you, Blue Elephant, not just for the wonderful food, but for the travelling orchid that helped me feel at home wherever we went. Highly recommended for the orchid factor and food, but if you don’t feel like rubbing shoulders with Bob and Gladys from room 565 then the Blue Elephant is not for you.
Now back in London, I’ve been asked to a friend’s pre-wedding dinner at the end of November and it will be at none other than the London Blue Elephant. I can’t wait. The conversation in the office went a bit like this:
“How about the Blue Elephant?”
“Yeah, great. I’ve never been…”
“You WHAT? You’ve been to the Blue Elephant in Thailand but you haven’t been to the one in your own back yard?”
“You’re going to love it. The staff are amazing; they make you feel like royalty.”
I’m now counting the days.
I’m looking forward to the food, the wine, the attentive but not overbearing service and the orchid (naturellement), but I’m also looking forward to eating at a Blue Elephant where I won’t be a tourist! And once this date is achieved, it might just be time to visit the one in Brussels.
If you ever find yourself in Bangkok, even if it’s just cooling your heels on a stopover like Monsieur and me, you should go on a Bangkok date. In our typically conservative style, there were no lady-boys or she-hes involved in our Big Night Out in Bangkok recently. Nor did we see the need to visit Patpong for a “Thai massage”, if that’s still what you call a rub down with all the very tickly extras. Did we miss out? Not a jot. As the details of our date will testify, Bangkok boasts far less talked-about, more sedate but thoroughly cosmopolitan options for visitors.
First, we dressed up. Off came the Fit Flops that would barely leave my feet for the next couple of weeks and on went the ballet pumps. We enlisted the advice of the team of concierges in the lobby to help us choose a fine place to dine Thai-style but first followed their directions to reach the nearby State Tower. Taking a deep breath we dodged our way across two busy roads messy with every sort of conceivable wheeled vehicle, including Thailand’s famous tuk tuks, stopped briefly to look at the State Tower’s shiny shrine, then left the muggy air behind as we entered the cool lobby which was disappointingly devoid of interest, apart from the presence of Razzbuffnik‘s favourite global coffee house: Starbuck’s. Is it possible to find a city that doesn’t have a Starbuck’s?
We crossed what felt like an acre of marble floor to the lift lobby entrance, where two women changed their shoes to comply with the dress code as their partners tapped their feet. Thank heavens I hadn’t worn my Fit Flops! Once our attire had been deemed passable by the doorman, we waited with an escort for a lift to arrive, and were then whizzed up some sixty something floors to the top of the second tallest building in the city.
The Dome at the State Tower is a landmark on the Bangkok skyline, largely because the tower is capped with a dome which lights up like a beacon at night. It’s also home to a cluster of chic eateries and bars. On the advice of my colleague, Irish Architect, here we were to drink some serious cocktails at a bar with one of the best views in town.
When we got out of the lift, a greeter efficiently guided us past a bar and dining room to a terrace where the Cool Crowd were already sipping on lusciously alcoholic concoctions. No dinky umbrellas in the drinks here! As we kicked off our shoes and tucked our legs up on the super deep sofas at the terrace edge, we checked out the patrons. There was a couple who’d frolicked shamelessly that afternoon in the hotel pool, now decked out in designer gear and obviously quite accustomed to this sort of scene. Then there were the young business people setting up their friends with potential lust interest, but most of the people were incredibly self-important looking, wearing their Do-You-Know-Who-I-Am? sunglasses in spite of the fact that the sun went down a few hours ago and tweedy flatcaps that may be trendy somewhere in the world right now but are laughably unsuitable for the heat of Thailand. It was all quite entertaining.
As Monsieur and I lounged and tried in vain to snap the twinkling lights of the city, we sipped on Martinis. Ah, divine decadence. My first was a chocolate version, but looked clear in the glass because it was made with creme de cacao, and was served with a chocolate-coated rim. Then I went all lemon with a lethal concoction of vodka and limoncello. I so seldom drink cocktails that this felt incredibly James Bond, but there was also a financial reason behind the choice of beverage: wine in Asia is exhorbitantly priced and cocktails prove much better value.
The waitress made us giggle when we ordered the second (and final) round of drinks; she furrowed her brow, looked at us directly and said “are you sure you want another drink? They’re very strong.” In fact, they were just normal cocktail strength, but as most travellers in Asia will attest, many cocktails made in this region taste quite unalcoholic, they are that weak.
We left our comfy sofa to ride the elevator back to terra firma, where a man in a top hat hailed us a cab and instructed the long-haired driver (who’d look less out of place DJ-ing in a nightclub) to take us to The Blue Elephant, the home of the international group of Thai restaurants by the same name. In the London Blue Elephant, I’ve heard reports that girls leave with orchids. Would they do the same here? What would the food be like? Would its reputation hold up? Would Monsieur, a born restaurant critic, rate it well? We were about to find out.
Before I start divulging the many and different tales from our recent trip to Vietnam, I thought it might help to post the itinerary we followed.
Day 1 Evening flight from London Heathrow to Bangkok.
Day 2 Arrive Bangkok. Transfer to Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
Day 3 Explore Bangkok with Driver Daeng.
Day 4 Fly from Bangkok to Hanoi. Stay at Sofitel Metropole Hotel.
Day 5 Day trip to Ha Long Bay.
Day 6 Hanoi.
Day 7 Fly from Hanoi to Hoi An. Stay at Ha An Hotel.
Day 8 Hoi An.
Day 9 Fly from Hoi An to Nha Trang. Stay at Evason Mandara Six Senses Resort.
Day 10 Chill out in Nha Trang.
Day 11 Day trip to Dalat.
Day 12 National Holiday in Vietnam. More chilling out.
Day 13 Fly from Hoi An to Ho Chi Minh City. Stay at the Majestic Hotel.
Day 14 Day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Mekong River.
Day 15 Last day in HCMC. Fly back to Bangkok. Stay at the Peninsula Hotel.
Day 16 Leave Bangkok. Time to fly back to England.
That’s quite a few flights; seven in sixteen days, to be precise. We did the Heathrow-Bangkok legs with EVA Air, Taiwan’s national airline. Their colour scheme is really quite green, as in seventies lime, they have Eva- branded Hello Kitty merchandise in the in-flight shopping magazine and everything, yes everything is too much trouble for the flight attendants. Still, their direct flights to Bangkok were the most competitive for us at the time and the film selection was so good that I managed to squeeze in 5 on the way back. That’s a lot of film watching I’ve managed to catch up on in one 12 hour flight.
Air Asia took us from Thailand to Vietnam and back. Monsieur and I like the flights we’ve taken with this low cost airline; they’re cheap, efficient and the fleet is shiny new. What we hate about Air Asia is being stung on the excess baggage. We paid $125.00 US excess baggage on our way out of Vietnam. Suddenly those tickets don’t look so cheap, but it’s the way they make their money, I guess.
Vietnam Airlines was our choice for internal travelling in Vietnam. We weren’t delayed once, although the flight from Nha Trang to HCMC terrified me. One of the engines made a straining whine for the duration of the flight, the plane dropped suddenly on a number of occasions and the turbulence was relentless all the way. I admit being white-knuckled with fast-filling eyes threatening to spill over and I prayed most of the way. When we arrived miraculously in one piece we went to church to light candles in thanks. I’ve seldom been so scared or so grateful to step off a plane alive.
When we met up with Adam of Vietnam Travel Notes he told us we’d been very lucky with our on-time departures with Vietnam Airlines. Apparently, their reputation for being delayed is so severe that they’re the butt of many airline jokes. Well, we were impressed and we always seemed to land BEFORE the scheduled arrival time. I don’t know how they do it. The runways could do with some work at some point. Lots of bumps and potholes.
If you want to know anything about our trip or experiences of Vietnam, leave a comment and I’ll get an answer posted for you as quickly as possible.
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.