Category Archives: visas
It was nearing the end of our ‘vacances’ in the South of France last summer and we spent our last morning visiting the town famed for brocante: L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Walking through the picturesque centre-ville, that day brimming with parading brass bands in competition, their supporters and weekend visitors like ourselves, we’d worked up quite an appetite. Rather than stay in town, which offered a fair number of riverside terrace restaurants with postcard views, Monsieur and I drove back into the surrounding countryside, to visit Restaurant La Villa.
Initially, we thought we might have been lost, because the area in which this restaurant is located is so very residential that garden play-sets are visible from the street. We continued with the directions, until we found a gate and a huge, grassy parking area, more like a massive lawn than a place to leave cars. Beyond the car park was another surprise: a large swimming pool, dangerously inviting on such a blistering day, but had we come to the right place? Was this an eatery or was it someone’s home?
At the swimming pool all became clear; to one side lay bronzed patrons, basking on loungers; to the other were tables in the shade of an awning – there, we would dine. Practically all of the terrace tables were taken. There were more seating areas inside, but no one wants to be overly sheltered on such a halcyon day; the interior was devoid of life. Fortunately, the warm waiter who greeted us only shook his head for the briefest of moments when we admitted we had no reservation. Weekend lunches here in summer are usually fully booked, he explained, yet he found us a table and, unbidden, located a fan to keep us cool.
This dragonfly was mesmerising. She clung to the fan to cool herself before flitting off around the pool, only to return moments later for a refresher.
The menu was far from exhaustive, allowing Monsieur and I to make our choices with some speed. We were ravenous by this stage, in spite of the heat. I decided on the seafood salad, while Monsieur probed our waiter about the cut of pork and which part of the beast it hailed from. Taking Monsieur’s shoulder, the waiter caressed it a little too attentively as he explained exactly which body part Monsieur would be eating. From across the table, my husband flashed me a look of bemusement and I stifled a giggle. Our waiter was absolutely lovely, very gay and, now it appeared, rather tactile when it came to explaining the source of his meats. If only all wait-staff could be like him, we’d be very happy diners indeed!
My seafood salad kept me silent for quite some time. It was much larger than I’d anticipated and consisted of powerfully fresh ingredients which were beautifully presented.
The king prawns were succulent in the extreme, anchovies on a perfectly golden crouton were a contrast to the rest of the salad in both texture and saltiness and the scallops had been seared with skill, retaining a silken consistency which gave them bounce in the mouth. No complaints from me. The dragonfly continued to come and go from the fan. I didn’t blame her; it certainly was hot.
Too hot (in my opinion) for what Monsieur chose to eat: a ‘plume’ of pork, from Mont Ventoux,(a regional mountain of note where the pigs must be happy with their lot, making them taste better) served with aubergines and sautéed potatoes.
Monsieur and I cleared our plates, coughed up the requisite Euros, thanked our charming waiter, left the sun worshippers behind and set off for Avignon and our last night of vacation. We had a wonderful evening planned, replete with ‘last supper’, but for now our appetites were sated and we could travel happy.
**In summary: Restaurant La Villa serves excellent food without pretention or attitude. A wonderfully relaxed setting in which to chill out of a weekend. In case of disappointment, I wouldn’t recommend chancing it like we did; definitely book in advance for weekend brunch in the summer.
Restaurant La Villa,A750 Avenue Jean Monnet, 84800 L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, France
(Hoan Kiem Lake in Central Hanoi. Don’t be fooled by how calm it looks; there are tens of thousands of mopeds buzzing around its perimeter!)
Flying into Hanoi saw my nose pressed firmly against the window, craning to view the Red River in all its glory. With such a bird’s eye view it was possible to see why it had been named ‘Red’, for the earth colours it a rich terracotta. It is a mighty beast, this river, and cannot be trusted. It certainly feeds the agriculture of the region but also floods regularly, causing havoc and destruction.
Back on the ground we were soon inside the airport, where we had our first proper taste of Vietnamese bureaucracy whilst waiting for our visas. They’d already been approved through an online visa agency but could only be issued in person, so here we were. A wordless attendant gestured at us to hand over our passports and complete another form, which only replicated information already given through the visa agency. Then he waved us around to the other end of a glass-walled office to pay the 50 USD processing fee and retrieve our passports. Flipping through the pages we checked that they contained our visas, which they did, but with our surnames first and middle names second. I guess they don’t understand how our names work, but in any other country, getting the names muddled could result in the document being rendered invalid. Curious.
(Moped rider near the Temple of Literature in Hanoi. Many women wear bandannas to protect them against traffic fumes, but also to protect their skin from sun exposure. Light skin is beautiful skin in Vietnam.)
Next we presented our documents at queue-less immigration counters where surly men in uniforms scowled as they stamped our passports. There was a total lack of welcome. You might be forgiven for feeling like an intruder with first impressions like these, but we were so excited to be in Vietnam, at long last, that we dismissed the grumpiness and looked forward to better experiences elsewhere.
Thanks to the time-consuming bureaucracy of immigration, the baggage handlers looked super efficient with all bags waiting for us on the carrousel. Now we just needed cash, so we approached an ATM. There are a lot of zeros involved with the Vietnamese currency, called Vietnamese Dong, so it confused me as I extracted 1.5million Dong, hoping beyond hope that I’d done my calculations correctly and I now held the equivalent of £50.00 in my hand, not £5,000.00 or some other outrageous sum.
Then we negotiated a cool 270,000 Dong for a taxi to our hotel in central Hanoi. It sounds terrifying, to pay 270,000 in any currency for anything less than a super yacht or piece of property. It was, in fact, equivalent to $16.00 USD and the tariff was government-regulated so the haggling wasn’t really necessary; our driver just tried it on a bit. At the end of the fare he was to receive a nice tip, so bless his Vietnamese cotton socks, he shouldn’t have worried so much at the start.
(Traffic in central Hanoi.)
As we left the airport, the road was immediately bumpy with potholes, which are a common issue throughout Vietnam, but I wasn’t interested in how comfortable our ride was; the views around us were attracting my full attention. Not only did the mountains behind us resemble those monochromatic ink-wash paintings found in Chinese restaurants, all around us were women wearing conical hats as they rode their bikes past rice paddies of the sort of vibrant green that tells of fertile land and plenty of precipitation. It was like travelling through an oriental wonderland.
Our driver didn’t seem too confident on the road; his brow bore the concentration furrows of a relatively new driver. We soon stopped for petrol at a service station and I watched one of the female attendants who’d tied a bandanna around her face to protect her from the fumes. She watched me back with smiling eyes and when we left, I waved at her. Her eyes lit up and she returned the wave with vigour. This was more like it: some friendly, smiling faces instead of the surliness back at Hanoi Airport.
(More traffic in central Hanoi. Crossing the road takes some doing in this sort of traffic.)
There weren’t many cars on the road; but it was positively teeming with two-wheeled vehicles, and from time to time we spotted a cart being towed along in the traffic by skinny oxen with horns that could do a lot of damage to a car windscreen, should push come to shove. As we drank in our new surrounds, it amazed us how many people could squeeze onto a tiny moped. Whole families, babies included, seemed able to fit on the one seat. Mopeds and motorcycles were the main form of transport here, carrying everything from people to bamboo cages filled with chickens or other animals destined for market or even the odd oven. If that weren’t a balancing act in itself, then the manoeuvres of the moped riders as they weaved daringly through the heavy traffic or drove out of side streets at right angles into the traffic flow without looking made them the equivalent of two-wheeled contortion artists. For these riders, no gap in the traffic was too small, and the air was alive with the honking of horns. This was one busy city and it was easy to think that it might just never slow down.
(Mopeds really DO go everywhere in Hanoi.)
We were now approaching central Hanoi. The houses lining the main thoroughfare on which we were travelling were tall and skinny. Many of them operated businesses from their ground floor room. We saw Pho bars, coffin makers, grocery shops and florists. Hairdressers had the freedom of the footpaths. Intrigued, we noticed that they set up shop by hanging a mirror on a wall and placing a chair for their clients on the footpath. Mounds of shorn hair grew from the ground around the chairs populated by a clientele who seemed perfectly happy to be groomed in public. Vietnam was already full of surprises yet we’d only been here for a short while. In any case, Monsieur and I were happy about that, because different was exactly what we’d signed up for when we decided to visit this fascinating country and different it was certainly proving to be.
Click here to read Part 1.
In the course of the evening, we learned many things, thanks to Palin himself and a keen audience full of questions. Did you know that when making travel series for the Beeb, there are six in Palin’s typical crew, including a stills photographer, whose contribution is much valued because most of the time, the others are too busy to take their own photos. One unanticipated obstacle of this profession is getting the job title right. Whatever does multi-skilled Palin write in that space on the visa form? There’s an anecdote in answer to that particular question. Palin recounted a family trip to Sierra Leone, where he was initially refused a visa because he’d listed his occupation as ‘writer’ and Sierra Leone’s government was somewhat sensitive about journalists at the time. Nowadays, Palin lists his occupation as ‘actor’, giving him issues no more complicated than having to embellish his professional relations with the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis.
Palin told us that his travels started relatively late as he grew up in post-war Sheffield and there wasn’t much opportunity to explore the world at that time. Once Python took off, however, he started taking off himself, to mostly American destinations. Of course, if you look at the past twenty years, there can’t be many countries left in the world that Palin hasn’t visited. What’s next on the list, then? Calcutta (woops, I mean ‘Kolkata’), and the glint in the speaker’s eye tells us that he can’t wait to get his hands dirty again in the manner of a truly intrepid explorer. After that? Iran. You could almost see Palin conjuring up an itinerary as he pictured Tehran, Esfahan, the Caspian Sea and the open plains. Then and there I decided to find a good Iranian restaurant so I could at least learn more about the food. By Jove, I was giving myself homework.
One question from the floor concerned the current state of humanity.
“Having travelled so extensively, what’s your view of humanity as a whole?” ventured one fan.
Palin looked up for a moment before answering. “I’m a glass half full sort of chap and when it comes to humanity, you know what I think? Not half bad.”
“In all your travels, what’s the best place you’ve visited and what’s the worst?” asked another.
Palin replied that it’s almost impossible to compare his destinations because of the tremendous differences and there are good and bad things about everywhere you go. However, he did remark that Peru is a special place, with the vibrant Cusco and the mysterious and ancient Machu Picchu.
One question concerned identifiable differences between types of travel. Is it different when he travels with his family? Palin explained that his wife, Helen, isn’t as adventurous a traveller as he, so when they plan a trip together, it’s likely to be aimed at relaxation. Then, he added that “Helen won’t be coming to Calcutta,” Judging by the audience’s collective chuckle, there was strong support for Helen’s right not to travel to the more challenging destinations. That’s another reason we all watch Palin; he can take us to Timbuktu and back without us feeling any of the journey’s pain.
As for his manner of writing, Palin told us that he jots down his experiences in a notebook, writing up the notes once he returns home. “I can’t imagine travel without writing,” he exclaims with a sudden burst of energy. For this traveller, the two are inextricably intertwined. The writing process is a long one, though. Palin locks himself away in his study and says that by the time a trip such as Eighty Days is completed and the book is finished, another two years have passed.
The question on everyone’s lips now was what were Palin’s future projects. Without hesitation, he explained that he and Helen now have a grandchild so family time is precious to him. He suggested that there may be a few single episode documentaries to come but that he’d like to spend more time at home now. “London’s a wonderful place,” he continued, “it’d be nice to experience more of it,” besides which he feels that he’s travelled so much that it’s all right to stop for a while, and, as important as travel is to his life, so is the opportunity to reflect on and consider all that he’s seen.
During question time, Monsieur nudged me hard. “Ask a question,” he urged with twinkling eye. “No, I’m too shy,” I whispered. But then, towards the end, Palin pointed at the gallery where we were sitting. “One last question from the gallery,” he called, “does anyone in the gallery have a question?” Suddenly, as if by involuntary reflex, my arm waved above my head. “Actually, yes, I do.” I said. Palin looked up at me. “Actually, yes,” he repeated with a cheeky smile. “What would be your advice to keen travellers, based on your own travel experiences?” I asked, my heart threatening to bounce out of my chest and down to the floor below. Palin recommended the following:
· It’s very important to talk to the people. Find out what they do, where they eat, what their stories are.
· Don’t go to a place with a long must-do-must-see list and don’t expect that it’s possible to cram the entire history of Egypt into a four day visit.
· Look around and observe what it’s like to really live in your destination. Watch people in the street, at the market or taking coffee. Walk around and experience the place from the ground up.
And, soon after, Palin closed the talk.
I whizzed downstairs to buy the anniversary edition of Round the World and queued up to have it signed. What surprised me most was that the queue wasn’t particularly long or cumbersome that evening. It struck me that perhaps people weren’t buying books anymore because of the credit crunch and following a £5.00 expenditure for the ticket, they considered their evening’s budget complete. In any case, I wasn’t about to complain.
“You asked me a question from up there,” Mr Palin said as my turn came,
“Actually, yes,” I replied, echoing my earlier performance and silently cursing the fact that I use that word, ‘actually’ so much. “Good voice,” he commented, as he dedicated the book. I admit it had surprised me a bit, but I put it down to years of speech and drama lessons. My teacher would be pleased to know that I haven’t forgotten how to project in a large room. We chatted a bit about one of his kids, whom I met when I was interning in Venice. At the time, I’d asked Palin The Younger what his advice for new interns would be. He kindly shared with me a suggestion that The Palin Now Sitting Right Next To Me had given him: take a poem with you when you’re guarding the galleries and learn a few more lines each day. That way, the boredom subsides and you add to your knowledge of literature.
Before leaving Mr Michael Palin in peace, I had my photo taken with him. It makes my head look like a football as I’m leaning towards the camera in embarrassing eagerness. However, it was worth a red face because now I can show it to Epic Papa, a traveller in his own time but now, for health reasons, unable to travel anywhere unless vicariously through the likes of a Palin DVD. That’s another reason why I’m such a fan of these series; they allow people to glimpse the broad world beyond their homes, even if they can’t go there themselves.
So you see, that’s why I’m smiling. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening in the company of someone I admire very much. This card-carrying fan is now the proud owner of a book signed by Michael Palin, and is considering hanging the shameless fan photo on the living room wall at home. “Okay, you can stop it now,” said Monsieur when I was still visibly thrilled with the evening, even after we got home, “or I might get jealous.” That, too, made me smile. No need to raise the green-eyed monster from the deep, Monsieur. There’s plenty of admiration reserved just for you. Having said that, I happen to know that Monsieur is quite a Palin fan himself.
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.