Backpacking Teacher

Travel, teaching and things in between. Saigon is the focus for now.

Archive for April 2009

What to do with a long weekend coming up? Vung Tau, Motorbike, The Herd and Museums.

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This Wednesday Vietnam celebrates the liberation of Saigon and the whole country has the day off. The next day, May 1st, is, unsurprisingly given that it’s recognised as an International Worker’s day, another public holiday. That gives us a much appreciated four-day weekend.

Of course that means that, like Tet, everyone’s on the move and so everywhere is busy. Flight to anywhere are pretty much booked out. Now I’m toying with two options. Stay and celebrate the liberation of Saigon by doing all those touristy museum and culture sights that I have not yet got to and spend sometime with my chocolatier friend. Alternatively I’ve been thinking about getting on my bike and riding the two plus hours down to Vung Tau. Of course I probably could, and probably will, combine these two options.

I’m keen to go for a ride on my bike. I wouldn’t say I’m keen to get out of Saigon because I’m still thoroughly enjoying my time here but I would like to see a little of the countryside. Vung Tau is appealing for a few reasons. The first is that it is the closest beach (sorta) to Saigon and that I can ferry it back from there rather than ride back on the same road I came in on. The second, more whimsical reason, is that, if like me you grew up in Sydney in the 80’s and 90’s you’ll remember these lyrics ……“from Vung Tau riding Chinooks to the dust at Nui Dat” . You’ll have had a little song about Vietnam stuck in your head from the mid-80’s that never quite went away, especially if you live in here. It came back with a vengeance lately as ANZAC day rolled around and as I watched a documentary online about The Herd remaking the  Redgum song “I was only 19”.




So, for one reason or another, I’m feeling drawn to a town that no-one I have met yet really likes. It’s described variously as drab, a tourist town, a slick and greasy would be city riding the crest of an oil boom. So I’ve no real reason to go and a thousand other more interesting places to visit and yet ……..

So there you have it … my not yet made plans for how I will celebrate the liberation of Saigon and May 1st.


Photo: original source article and photo available at


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April 27, 2009 at 7:34 pm

Dinner with a chocolatier

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I had the distinct pleasure of dining with a chocolatier tonight. I spent the night haphazardly picking at my food not quite tasting what I was eating as I sat enthralled. I was dining with a friend who was talking about her time in Paris and her love for chocolate. Her face came alive as her hands danced in the air, rolling imaginary melted chocolate until it reached the right temperature. Her hands brushed against her chin as she checked the temperature of her make believe chocolate. Her eyes recoiled in shock at remembering how Sofitel Metropole chefs in Hanoi microwaved their chocolate to melt it.

I had the rare pleasure of being absolutely entranced by the passion exuded by another. I could see her mind beginning to switch over from the English she was speaking to me to the French she was remembering in and within minutes French, Vietnamese and English all gave way to her joy for chocolat. While the rain teamed down around us I felt a world away. For a brief moment in hot, rainy, sweltering Saigon I felt like I was in Paris watching this passionate chocolatier at work.

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April 22, 2009 at 11:20 pm

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Night time drinks in South Saigon in which I drink pickled Crow and pickled Gekko.

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After tennis this week I joined a group of friends at a local street side restaurant. I’ve been to the place many times before and have mentioned it on this blog before as the goat place.  What I’ve not mentioned before is that on occasions whilst I’ve been eating here I would be offered little shot glasses full of alcohol by fellow diners. It’d be rude to say no so on more than one occasion I’ve thanked them and downed the little shot glass of fiery liquid.

Then the other day I’m talking with a mate and he informs me that the drinks come from the bottles at the back of the shop (see photo above) and that each bottle has some weird and wonderful herbs and/or animal inside. He tells me that one of the bottles contains a crow. We laugh and I think nothing more of it until this week after tennis. After a couple of beers I’m determined to see this crow I’d heard about. So a few of us get up and head to the bottles at the back of the shop. It’s hard to see inside this jars but they remind of nothing so much as the bottles of formaldehyde that used to sit at the back of high school science labs filled with embryos and snakes. Turns out I’m not to far off. One of the waiters kindly opens a couple of jars for us. The first jar he opens does indeed contain a crow (see rather poor photo below). Not just any crow but a slick, dark, beady eyed crow that looks like he just stupoured into that bottle earlier today. It’s far more likely he’s been pickling in there for years but he looked pretty fresh.

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Of course when confronted by something so different we’re left with very little option but to try the Crow whiskey. They scoop it out of the formaldehyde jar into a small water bottle and charge us the princely sum of 22,000 dong (about $1.25). We charge our shot glasses and drink to the crow. It’s not entirely bad but certainly doesn’t fit into the pleasant category. The bottle finishes soon enough and we decide to order another only this time we’re going to go gekko. You see one of the other bottles also contained this evil, spotty, scaly skinned two-hand sized gekko and we wanted to determine whether crow really does make a better drink than gekko. Turns out that it’s equally as poor although after much discussion the consensus of opinion was that crow is smoother than gekko.

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April 18, 2009 at 2:41 pm

Fire breathers and snake swallowers at my local restaurant in Saigon

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fire breathing at de mim cuoi nguyen thi thap

I’ve mentioned the goat place before, a local restaurant that is a semi-regular haunt of mine. I was introduced to the place by friends and it is a place I quite enjoy visiting. Sometimes I just go for a drink and sometimes for a meal. The  food is generally fresh and tasty and, rubbery goat udder aside, is something I generally enjoy.

During the week a friend and I decide to go for a post pub nightcap at the goat place. Actually I was walking into my apartment door when I received the call. I was going to decline, looking forward to a quietish night, but was persuaded by mention of a wedding or similar ceremony going on opposite the goat place which would therefore provide some entertainment for the evening.

I jump on the bike and in a minute or 2 I’m at the goat. I prop myself onto an exceptionally tiny plastic chair as the waiter brings over, unbidden and knowing what I want, a mug full of ice and a Saigon brand beer and places it on the rickety aluminium table. There is indeed a party going on opposite and it comprises a group of slightly inebriated, mostly men, singing along to a what must be popular Vietnamese songs. The songs screech out of one of those ubiquitous, over loud, partially damaged karaoke boxes that dominate Asia. It provides an interesting backdrop to a couple of evening beers but we soon lose interest and move onto other topics. As we do so the regular backdrop of evening vendors and entertainers begins to arrive. The teenage flower seller, the elderly lady selling raffle tickets, the elongated man selling deep fried compounded rice cakes, the rather crabby, crooked backed, old lady who sells more expensive raffle tickets (I still have a few of those tickets, unchecked, lying around the house). The karaoke machine guy doesn’t turn up but perhaps that’s because it’s being used by the party opposite or perhaps he’s already been around earlier in the evening.

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After fobbing off a few vendors we see the snake man arrive. I should say snake boys. There are two lads, one barely in his teens and the other in his late teens or early twenties who do the snake and fire act. The older lad is doing all the fire breathing tonight and he spits out and lights his kerosene mixture with amazing gusto this evening. He does a few different variations on this before opening the basket before him and removing the grass snake. Bright, green and wriggling he holds it up for the, mostly disinterested diners, to see. He then proceeds to insert the snake through his nose and out of his mouth. Then, with a motion reminiscent of flossing your teeth, he moves the snake backward and forward. He takes the snake out, has it wrap around his hand a few times and then repeats the nostril swallowing of the snake. Then the act ends as his younger offsider snakes his own way through the diners to collect the paltry few dong they pass his way. A tough gig and a tough way to make money I think as I give the boy some money.

I return back to my drink and conversation. Just another night in Saigon. Just another night at the goat place.

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April 11, 2009 at 1:57 pm

Only the English can do a school like this. I visit Wellington College.

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I’ve left Cyprus now and am happily ensconced in a little village called Crowthorne about an hour South-West of London. Actually I’m staying in a student dorm. When my boss was talking to me about the training in London he asked if I would stay in the student accommodation. I thought about it knowing that, if I refused, he would be ok with it and would put me up in a nearby hotel but I had two reasons for staying in a dorm. The first that the school was already spending quite some money to send me here and it would be churlish of me not to reciprocate and save the school some money. The second reason was that I’ve done hotels to death. My first career being hotel management I’ve stayed in hundreds of hotels – they hold no attraction for me and often I still feel like I’m on a busman’s holiday when I’m staying in a hotel. I haven’t however stayed in student accommodation since my Uni years and here was my opportunity to stay in school accommodation in an old British establishment school dating back to the 1800’s – I figured only an idiot would choose to stay at a nearby hotel.


So here I am in student accommodation. They’ve put me in a new building and I’m in a prefect’s room so while I have no TV I do have an ensuite. This room suits me fine and is far better than many places I’ve stayed at over the years. The school I’m at, Wellington College, is however something different. It is a fantastic old establishment, a school like only the English can do schools. Old buildings, dining halls, Chapels – a rugby field, a shooting range and buildings oozing history. Think Harry Potter type school. I wander around the grounds for a few hours. The place is quiet as students are away for holidays so while I’m not quite alone it is peaceful. I wander about hallways filled with busts of Lords and Generals who fought in Waterloo and the Crimea. The origins of the school are military and you can still see the military tradition hold strong but this is not a military school. For awhile I try to find evidence of the lives of young people because everything seems so historical. Find it I do however as posterboards under busts of long forgotten campaigners of the Frontiers and the Boer war display student work and notices. I read one notice and smile as I see some concern that the girls at school are wearing too much “bling” and are not being called up on it. This school may ooze wealth and history from it’s pores but it is still clearly just a school.

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April 4, 2009 at 5:23 pm

I go to see Aphrodite

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The wind is blowing my hair in a thousand different directions and it has that slight bite to it as if winter is not yet ready to cede to spring. But spring is winning, I know this because the sun is warm, I’m wearing a T-shirt  , I can hear birds chirping and I saw the hillsides covered in yellow flowers on my way down to this harbour in Paphos.

I’m sitting enjoying the warmth. I order a Cypriot coffee which, like it’s Greek and Turkish compatriots is strong and syrupy. I know from previous experience to beware the grounds that sit waiting at the bottom of the cup. I remember a friend’s story about drinking Greek coffee for the first time and finding her mouth full of coffee grounds. I laugh and send her a text telling her what I’m doing.


I sip my coffee, cleanse my palette with the accompanying water and admire the view. In front of my are all manner of pleasure craft. To my right a 16th century Ottoman fort and to my left waves breaking over rocks in front of resort hotels. The languages around me are varied but mostly Greek and British English. I listen in to a Dutch conversation for awhile but give up as it turns into a domestic blue.

I look around me at my companions in the harbour on this beautiful day. I find myself surrounded by many octogenarians and septuagenarians … many of them Brits who seem to live here. I here the occasional whinge as someone tries to convert pounds to Euros and discussions of which Church or castle to visit next. I hear banal chatter about Big Brother and I hear chatter about economic crises.

I return to my book – some throwaway Grisham thriller only to be dissuaded from it by the glorious sun. I sit there awhile and am then drawn by the chance of exploring those Roman villas that sit just behind me. My last day in Paphos is proving a delight.


From Paphos I drive back along the south coast towards my base in Larnaca. The coastline is rugged, cliff like rocky outcrops, meandering fields of yellow flowers lowly lowering themselves into the Mediterranean, stony pebble filled beaches and little fishing harbours.  I decide, because it’s on the way, to stop off and visit Aphrodite that Greek goddess of love and speak to her on matters of the heart. I park the car, crawl through a tunnel carved under the road and make my way onto the beach of stony rounded pebbles. Jutting out into the ocean lie two rocky outcrops and crashing against them with a fearsome and icy cold spray is the waters from which Aphrodite sprang. I stay awhile bracing myself against the biting wind and cold surf spray. I think of loves lost and those yet to come. On the beach a young couple determined to live the moment spread a blanket on the rocks and proceed to picnic on the beach that Aphrodite strode ashore on. A dishevelled and unshaven middle aged man holds tight the hand of a young boy. The young boy doesn’t complain as he watches his father look wistfully out to sea. This little beach is full of memories, so full of emotions that it rivals the cold surf spray for ferocity. I stay awhile making up stories in my mind for the handful of people who wander along the beach before finally turning back.

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April 1, 2009 at 10:17 pm

I entered an anomaly today

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I entered an anomaly today. It wasn’t so different from everything else I’d been seeing all day but it was an anomaly non the less. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is recognized by no one but Turkey. Of course in real life the innumerable UN vehicles, barbed wire, blue helmeted soldiers, massive Greek and Turkish flags, watchtowers and armed soldiers mean that it’s impossible not to recognise that going to North Cyprus is like going to another country.

Getting to the border is an effort. No I lie, finding the border is no problem. I’d been butting up against it by accident for several days now. Only now I wanted to cross and it became clear that no one was going to clearly signpost where the border crossing was. A quick search on the net solved that and following those directions I soon found myself at a border control point. Kinda anti-climactic after all the sandbags, soldiers and barbwire I’d been seeing for days this was a handful of huts, sleepy immigration officers and nary a gun in sight. Ok maybe there were a few guns but definitely no tanks – that I could see.

Border crossing was painless except for €20 that I had to pay for car insurance to take the car north. They don’t stamp my passport but instead stamp a separate white bit of paper in case I ever want to go to Greece or return to Cyprus (the southern bit) … seems like they’re still a little sensitive to people visiting the North.
I drive north, past Turkish flags so big they’d envelope a truck, to my left the hillside has been carved out so that a Turkish flag can be seen clearly on it’s slope. It’s a real in your face gesture to those in the South who can clearly see that mountainside. Over the mountains (big hills) I drive to the port of Kyrenia or Girne. The Cypriots love nothing more than to give every town several names and it’s up to the hapless visitor to know them all. So now I know my Lefkosa from my Lekosia from my Nicosia.

I arrive in Kyrenia, park and wander down the road. There I am heralded by a fantastic little harbour, almost fully encircled and containing all manner of small boats and surrounding the harbour many little cafes. It reminded me of the port cities in Turkey and it made me like the town already.

It’s starting to drizzle so I head up to the castle. Like everything in Cyprus it’s a mixed bag of Byzantine, Crusader, Ottoman and British. Everywhere you go on this little island you’re reminded of it’s position at the crossroads of history. Everyone from Knights Templar to Catholics saints has been here. Often you’ll come across a church that has been a mosque that was a church or a castle that changed hands many times. Like the one that sits between the old Roman Harbour and the newer Byzantine Harbour of Kyrenia. I wander the castle for a few hours, it’s one of the more interesting castles I’ve visited and it’s location at the foot of the hills, next to two harbours and in front of both a church and a mosque seems to encapsulate the history of Cyprus in one very real, solid bit of building.

I like the anomaly that is North Cyprus. It feels less touristy, more real, and a bit more unfamiliar. I particularly like Kyrenia – this little town of history with it’s scenic little harbour. It begins to pour and thunder sounds, the sun has disappeared but I’m smiling as the rain soaks me atop this ancient castle.

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April 1, 2009 at 2:57 am