Po Nagar Cham Towers and the Long Son Pagoda

Ha Van Hotel has turned out to be pretty awesome. From reception we get a scooter for the day and head over the bridge for some tourist pics. The Po Nagar Cham Towers are old Hindu temples which you can wonder around quite peacefully. You only need to wear long sleeves and pants if you want to enter the towers but they are small and impressive enough from outside.

After this we go straight to the Long Son Pagoda. Following a map, it is pretty easy to spot the giant white Buddha from a distance. It’s a great photo opportunity but be careful of the guy at the bell – I think he had a great time shoving us inside the giant bell (momentary panic that we are about to have all our camera gear stolen) and taking our picture and demanding $10AUD!

After this we head back to a small street market where we find the best seafood in the world ever. No seriously! Oysters BBQ’d on charcoal with herbs, peanuts and a spicy green chilli sauce are so good I have to order more!

We miss the sunshine but spend the afternoon on rented beach chairs in front of the Salining Club before returning to our street for a bottle of rose at La Parisiene (how this amazing French rose can cost less than $10 in Asia is a mystery). I start talking about the idea of cycling this whole country from south to north but Matt seems to think it would be easier on a motorbike. Of course cycling wouldn’t be easy but I don’t do anything just because it’s easy!

We wonder around for dinner stopping at Crazy Kim’s for a 241 Mojito. It is good to read about Kim Le who started the Hands Off the Kids charity and educates victimes of paedophilia from her spa/gym/bar. We finally settle on Truc Linh 2 but the busy staff seem a little flustered and we pay way too much for warm Chardonnay.

On the way back we stop at the Red Apple Club and meet Clair who is cycling from China to Melbourne. She is pretty awesome and seems like just the right motivation I need to get on a bike. We leave the backpacker hotspot and stop at Booze Cruise for a drink but Matt isn’t really making sense anymore so it’s time to go.

Our last day in Nha Trang we spend at the Long Thanh Art Gallery. Thanh is Vietnam’s most prominent photographer and specialises in black and white photography, really capturing the essence of his country in lifestyle photos. It is a small gallery so you really have to read the map well and look for the house number or it is easy to miss. We go to the National Oceanographic Museum but it is kind of boring and I feel bad for the tiny enclosures the two seals live in.

We are taking the night train up to Hoi An and I have taken some cold and flu tablets from the local pharmacy as I was feeling a bit ill and they have completely knocked me about so I am really enjoying being rocked to sleep by the rhythmic motion of the train. I fall asleep quickly and wake up in time to enjoy some of the passion countryside. Next stop: Hoi An.

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Nha Trang

We arrive at the airport way too early and then our flight is delayed so we spend about half the day waiting, sitting, shuffling, waiting… When we finally get to the Ha Van hotel in Nha Trang, the staff are friendly and welcoming. I think this place is about $30/night and it is great. Free drink at the rooftop bar on arrival, simple but clean and open room, fridge, air con and balcony overlooking the street. Matty is trying to get himself organised but I throw on a bikini and veritably drag him out the door and down to the beach. I just need to be in the ocean. As we take off our clothes I run like a kid into the water. It’s like a big sandy washing machine and we come out with sand in all kinds of weird places that I won’t mention here.

We attempt to have a quiet night of dinner at Veranda restaurant. It is really cheap ($1-$10USD per main) so we take a chance on the Dalat wine… At a dollar a glass you don’t mind pushing it aside for a cocktail. The food is simple and nice but nothing amazing. I have a calamari salad which is basically seafood, tomato, cucumber and sweet chilli sauce. Matt has garlic bread which I try not to steal. The French influence in this part o Vietnam is really obvious- bakeries and patisseries everywhere! For mains I have mackerel in thick salty oyster sauce (slightly overlooked) and Matt has lamb chops on a polenta potato mash. He scoffs it down and we are ready to move on as soon as I am done. We go for a wonder around and end up at Oasis bar which is right next to our hotel. They specialise in bucket cocktails and shisha pipes. We order apple and mint shisha though I never smoke and the staff keep deciding Matt wants a rum and coke instead of a gin and tonic. I try a Long Island ice tea (old fashioned cocktail menu) but eventually settle on a kamikaze. The open garden of black tables and little puffs of shisha smoke add to the lounge vibe and our bill comes to 1.35million Dong, which is like $70 AUD.

The next morning we get up way too early for our dive. Rainbow Divers are picking us up at 7 so we only have half an hour to have a quick breakfast and grab a coffee on the way out. The morning is clear and bright as we head down to the harbour and board the large wooden boat which is steered masterfully out of the crowd of fishing and dive boats. A large group of tourists is separated into pairs. Some are doing their open water course and others are just snorkelling. We do two dives in total and though the visibility is quite low (5m), especially on the second dive, Anh, our guide, is really great at pointing out all the tropical marine life. We are lion fishes, egg cowries, clown fishes, jellyfish, pipefishes, amazing little Christmas tree worms and feather stars that remind me of Avatar as they snap back into their hard little shell in the coral. We break between dives for a snack and then head out for a second go. It is over way too soon but it was my first real dive since my course so I’m more than stoked! It is nice being on a boat again as we make the short trip back to port.

The afternoon we decide to spend shopping. Usually of the two of us I would say Matt is the shopaholic but today he isn’t finding anything as I hand over cash and fill up my little bag. We stop for street Pho on tiny plastic chairs which barely fit a child let alone a fully grown tall man… In the end we stop at the Sailing Club for a drink (finally real wine) and make a reservation for dinner later in the evening.

Before dinner we stop at a little tea house which we are disappointed to find has only local Saigon beer (not great) and non-alcoholic drinks. It is a beautiful and serene setting with water features and I enjoy a ginger tea with honey that my throat just loves but matty’s beer over ice drunk with a straw fails to impress so we go straight to dinner.

At the Sailing Club, I’m surprised to be a little cold in the evening breeze. The beach is covered in tables and chairs, bean bags and a bonfire which will be lit up later. The passionfruit mojitos are served with a slice of sugar cane which is the best tasting part- there is a weird flavour I can’t identify. For entrees we order rice paper rolls and the traditional seafood pancake. The pancake is amazing! For main we get the seafood platter for 2 which has a whole snapper, BBQ prawns, calamari, scallops and wedges. They serve 2 sauces with the entree and 2 with the main so we have to experiment a little to find out what goes on where. I switch to wine and Matt goes for beer after the cocktails failed. For dessert we order the chocolate banana spring rolls (thighs, forgive me) which is served with a scoop of decadent chocolate ice cream. I’m already planning the exercise and detox regime I’m going to have to do when I get back to Sydney…

After dinner I’m still cold so we move inside to a table right next to the dance floor. The dj probably hasn’t started yet so the music is erratic and odd. When he does begin a bit of a dance party evolves and some local boys start off the floor. We watch as it grows in the space of an hour and an older couple tear it up with the kind of confidence and limitless joy that comes only with age. Our bill comes to 2 million dong (just under a hundred dollars) which is all the money we brought out so we make our way back after our final drink. Overall Nha Trang is beautiful and relaxing with just the right amount of nightlife to keep a pair of young travellers busy.

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Burning Soles in Saigon

Arrival

We arrive into Ho Chi Minh City just after 8pm. Although my super organised counterpart has brought all the necessary visa forms (complete with separate allocations of the required $45 in US currency attached by paperclip), we still join the massive throng of people standing wearily at a small window. Minimal communication, the paperclipped money is thrown back at us and our passports taken, we stand and wait for our names to be called. There is no point complaining; this is Asia. Chaos, a backwards system and eventually we find our bags waiting on the floor of the airport between two belts. It is past 9pm when we finally get to the night market around the corner form our hotel, but we sit facing towards the flow of people as we order some seafood noodles and soup. The delicious food comes quickly but as we start to eat, a loud crash and the scream from a flamboyant transvestite alert us to a crash only metres away. People look, a small crowd gathers, but after minutes the scene dissipates and the flow of the night market continues. We go for a slightly precarious walk to the roundabout (a moat of screeching motorcycles, rickshaws and taxis protects the island) and get a few night photos of the equestrian mounted Tran Nguyen Han, but sleep is tugging at our sleeves so we head back to the hotel. It is already early morning back in Sydney anyway.

A day in Ho Chi Minh

Waking up at 7am, we venture to the rooftop pool and gym before breakfast. The gym is small at the Grand Silverland; only a treadmill and a weights setup and if you don’t turn on the air conditioning on, stiflingly hot. The pool looks out over the city and is beautifully cool without too much chlorine. We head out after breakfast on a walking tour that we are follwing from the Lonely Planet Vietnam guide. It takes us on a loop around past some museums and statues and down near the river. We stop at a gorgeous little cafe on a corner called Kita where I find the best iced coffee I have ever had (Sydney continues to disappoint and yet Asia gets it perfect every time!) before we continue towards the Saigon river where a man stands sketching a boat with focused dedication. Our cameras require a bit of respite as we pass a small Pho cafe off the beaten track. Mostly locals are eating there, but we find a seat next to an English girl who explains that Pho comes in only chicken or beef, but is probably all made with the same meat broth. I guess we could call me a flexible pescatarian when travelling so I order the chicken and try my best to eat around it. When a few pieces find their way into my mouth I am reminded of why I don’t eat it (so chewy!) The herbaceous noodle soup is full of flavour (is that the taste of meat broth?), but I add lime, basil, mint and chilli and even reach across to finish off some of Matt’s. It tastes so good I’m sad it’s over but I am looking forward to eating again! Matt has rubbed his eyes with his fingers after touching the chillis and is quietly suffering as we continue our walk.

We add an extra kilometre on the walk to see the Jade Emperor Pagoda. Out the front you can buy small fish, turtles, flowers or incense to offer up for prayers inside the temple. Just to the right of the main temple an enormous turtle is kept in a caged pool where tourists hand feed it bits of bread. A larger pool is home to the overflowing mass of baby turtles. Smoking incense curls up in billowing waves from sandpots all over the courtyard which is shaded by cascading willow trees. Tourists march through unceremoniously, taking photos and listening intently as a guide explains the history in their native language. An Indian couple try to offer a drink to the many armed deity inside (could be Durga), but their guide roughly takes the bottle from them and insists that he must do it on their behalf. The dark inner temple is overcrowded with candles, wooden carvings that loom out overhead and more incense. The large Jade Emperor statue at the back is surrounded by Mandalas and smaller statues of Buddha. I stop to say a small prayer, however I am jossled back out of the way by another tourist taking a photo so I take a photo too. Some locals sit quietly in the courtyard; it is still a sanctuary despite the tourism. Sometimes nothing can take away from the inherent peace that surrounds a temple. Like the burning incense; the fire of faith lingers past the flash of photography.

On the walk back we head past the Notre Dame Cathedral, taking pictures of the Communist political posters around the city. We stop at the War Remnants museum and take some pictures of the tanks and planes outside. Inside is a guillotine, a barbed wire cage in which prisoners were kept and many gruesome pictures and stories from that shocking time. I like the pictures in the museum from all around the world, showing various cities protesting the US involvement in the Vietnam war. We are about to go upstairs to see the Agent Orange room when a thundering boom of voices starts to rise. The room full of people turns to see where the sound is coming from and with a burst of colour and sound, a door opens and a mass of school children all in lime green pour out of a small room and spread across the floor, crowding the stairs all the way up. We instead venture back outside to look at the enormous bombs. It is a sobering thought that they can kill whole villages and towns of people without discrimination. Our feet are tired so we head back to the hotel for a swim and a change before dinner.

The Bar Hop

At night, the city takes on a new vibrancy and energy uplifted by the rainbow of neon lights. We pass through the Ben Thanh night market where we are the night before. It is past 7pm but they are only just setting up for the evening. Fake designer handbags appear out of boxes and bottles of mysterious alcohol with Scorpions and snakes eerily preserved within. Surely such liquids must possess the power to cure anything from freckles to colourblindness.

At the roundabout we continue down the road noting a Jazz Club on our left. For dinner, we follow the advice of the good book (Lonely Planet) and go to the Temple Club. Just upstairs is a chaotic, loud Vietnamese BBQ clouded by the smoke of sizzling meat and seafood. Luckily we are offered a high table at the Temple Club even though we have no reservation and start with a beer and a caipirinha. We look around at the 1930’s decor, remembering our first date at Uncle Ming’s bar in Sydney which had much the same feel. The menu is long and we are spoilt for choice, jumping back and forth through the pages until we finally decide on deep fried squid and prawn vermicelli rolls wrapped in mustard leaves (usually include pork but the waitress can accommodate). I try to play ninja chopsticks as we wait but my battle buddy is secretly afraid so he doesn’t take up the challenge… The squid arrives first and is very crunchy, accompanied by a thick aeoli sauce but the mustard leaf rolls are beyond divine. Matt is experiencing festivities in his mouth while I try to pick up as much spicy saté sauce as I can with the little green spring roll.

For mains Matt has ordered a plate of pork which he devours in seconds and I attempt to eat the sweet beans atop my Vietnamese steamed fish. Beans and chopsticks- at last the ninja is defeated. Despite the lightness of the food we are full and decide to venture back into the night for further libations. The highly rated Qing wine bar is mysteriously closed. Whether it is for renovations, the holidays or forever we can’t tell so we head down to the rooftop garden bar above the Rex only to be greatly disappointed by the overpriced drinks and corny music. The place is full of dining families and lacks atmosphere. Paying for a view is overrated and our next attempt to find the elusive Cue bar fails so we head down to a place we found online called Voodoo… Matt doesn’t even slow down as the sign outside saying “crazy girls” clearly means working girls. We find the Kita cafe again and I order a Margarita while Matt is befriended by a tiny Vietnamese boy on a yellow tricycle who poses for a photo, chats endlessly in Vietnamese and is fascinated by Matt’s phone. Regardless of the language barrier, this child grows quickly attached, happy to continue his monologue as he pats Matt’s knee. When we stand to leave he takes the bill straight to the counter for us and the whole family waves goodbye. Around the corner, the historic Majestic hotel bar is already closed so we go straight to the nightclub Apocalypse Now. Intense dance music and flashing lights makes me wonder for a moment if I have epilepsy. I’m sure I don’t but we aren’t really feeling this crowd. Perhaps it is the manic dancing from elderly tourists or the scantily clad girls scanning the crowd but we get bored and continue on. By now my soles are burning (should have worn my runners today and not thongs). We head back to the Jazz club as I prophesy the irony of ending up at the very first bar we spotted after all that walking. The atmosphere is just what we have been after at the Jazz club and I am more impressed by the drinks than the music- they are skilled an enthusiastic but Matt says the drummer is missing “feel”. I do have faith in the bartender but the bar closes far too soon as the waitress tries to sell the sax player’s cd. We walk back with aching blackened feet and lay down with relief feeling we did our best to cover as much of Ho Chi Minh as we could.

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Jade Emperor Pagoda

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Ben Thanh Night Market

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War Remnants Museum

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Walking Tour, Ho Chih Minh Market

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One of those mysterious laws of the universe where my camera and I struggle with aperture, ISO, shutter speeds etc… and then the iPhone takes a perfect shot

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Jade Emperor Pagoda

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Waving from the rooftop pool of the Grand Silverland to some Vietnamese school girls on a balcony across the road

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our first Photo Date

January – New Year, New Look, New Bliss Project

This year the 365 Days in Bliss has changed slightly. Each month I will be doing something new for the whole month, blogging about the journey and updating my experience. Last year, the necessity to blog everyday was a huge commitment and when work made it difficult, I started to stress a bit. This was completely counter-productive to the purpose of the blog so this year, doing a monthly project gives me a bit more freedom to write as I go and still offer up a bit of Bliss Exploration as the journey continues. For the month of January, I have decided to take a picture everyday. I have already found a couple of days where this has become difficult; I either almost forgot or just took a random picture out of necessity. There are also some days where I find more than one thing I want to take a picture of, so I have included multiple pictures where I found it necessary. The idea is to find the aesthetic beauty of each day. In the meantime, here are the first 9 days of photos. Tomorrow we leave for Vietnam so I can imagine the next ten days of photos will be FULL of amazing shots!

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