Coconut Candy & Crocodiles: the Mekong Delta

Hi from Vietnam! We’ve been here a couple of weeks already and done a lot, and I’m going to post slightly randomly, because we did a few more museums and – surprise! – they were grim. So to start, here is our day trip from south from Saigon (that’s Ho Chi Minh City to anyone who can be arsed to use the city’s post-war name, which is zero people out here) to the Mekong Delta.

First of all, let me stress that if you travel from Saigon to the Mekong Delta, you need to stop off at the Mekong Rest Stop. I have become well acquainted with Asian public toilets in the last month and I can safely say that I have never been to one – out here or at home, actually – that’s had such a pleasant ambiance. There is a lake. The lake has lily pads. There are bridges and paths and little places to sit. There are restaurants with cute names and neatly organised crockery. I didn’t have time to take a picture because I spent 15 of our 20 minutes queuing for the toilets (nothing is perfect) but it was prettier than some places I’ve paid to visit.

This has been your public service announcement.

Our trip took us to three islands on the delta’s tributaries, which are named things like Unicorn Island and Phoenix Island. The most mystical thing I saw was some fire dancing, but we’ll get to that. We were warned to keep our arms inside the boat in case of crocodiles and I couldn’t tell if it was a joke or a caution – there isn’t any health and safety out here, but no one wants to be eaten by a prehistoric lizard – but the river has been over-fished, so there aren’t many left. I don’t think there’s much of anything left, as fishermen tend to go right out into the sea to catch what they’re after. There’s still a tradition of painting eyes on the front of boats though, to keep the crocs away.

Mekong Delta, Vietnam
I may paint eyeballs on my car to ward off motorists who can’t use their indicators.

On our first island we visited a coconut candy factory. I haven’t done a blog on South East Asian food yet so you haven’t heard me complain about the lack of chocolate (there are Snickers, M&Ms and Hershey’s in the shops, but American imports are expensive so most of the confectionery is cake-y). Instead of chocolate, sweet toothed (teethed?!) Vietnamese eat coconut candy, which is basically coconut plus malt sugar. The cooking process is ridiculously simple (mix and cook for half an hour) and we got to try some. It tastes a little bit like toffee and a little bit like fudge and a lot like something you’d find in Honeydukes or Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. I have a serious sweet tooth – I was distressed to learn I’d have to pay five dollars for a Hershey’s – and a few mouthfuls was sweet enough for me. Maxim managed about one bite, so it is possibly not for the savoury-minded… or the diabetic. I would’ve bought some for home, but we’ve got two more months of travelling and the odds of a lump of gooey sugar surviving in my bag are worse than the odds of the US administration not starting a war, so to get a flavour of what it’s like, do the following:

  1. Get some coconut flavoured toffee
  2. Turn the heating up
  3. Run a hot bath so the entire house is nice and steamy
  4. Release several thousand insects onto your property
  5. Eat the toffee
Coconut Candy factory in Mekong Delta, Vietnam
This is where the candy cooks over coals. Sometimes they add flavour, like peanut or ginger.

Our second island was kind of surreal. New year celebrations hadn’t finished (I will talk about them in another post), so there was a circus-type variety show on with a guy eating knives and a girl dancing with fire to Lady Gaga songs, as well as traditional lion dancing. It felt both very Vietnamese and very international, but I guess Lady Gaga has that effect. The island’s regular entertainment included a couple of pools full of crocodiles, a couple of shops with bags made from the crocodiles’ late cousins and a fleet of ancient bicycles that I refused to touch (partly because they came out of the ark and partly because my feet wouldn’t have reached the pedals).

Tet Circus Celebration Mekong Delta, Vietnam
Yep, those are knives balanced on his nose.
Crocodiles in Mekong Delta, Vietnam
I’m not a crocodile fan, but I’m not a crocodile handbag fan either…

The third and final island was probably the closest to what I’d expected from the tour: we tried local fruits while a group of musicians played local folk songs – and If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands which is one Western import that needs to disappear from everywhere, including the West – and got stared at pointedly by a lady with a basket until I took one for the team and tipped a thousand dong. Then we tried honey tea in a traditional-yet-quite-commercialised ‘local home’. I mean, it was clearly someone’s home, but no one serves tea in formal dress and heels. As someone who used to work for a tea bar I can confirm that honey tea is a) nothing like regular tea and b) delicious. They keep the bees on site (some actually flew around us and took little baths in the honey as it was served) and the tea is essentially a spoonful of honey plus lime juice plus what I think was honeycomb, topped with boiling water, served in a shot glass. I’m going to try it at home, and maybe sell it as a hangover cure-come-detox method because it was one of the few genuinely healthy beverages I’ve ever tried that also genuinely didn’t taste like vomit.

As this is Vietnam and an excursion wouldn’t be complete without using the term ‘that’s bizarre’, the same house had a cage with two pythons, and visitors could drape one of the pythons around their neck while posing for a picture. I abstained because I am not suicidal, and couldn’t help but notice that while one of the pythons was out and about, the cage containing the other was left wide open. Bizarre and a potential international disaster!

Our final sight was the traditional Mekong riverboat trip, the one you’ll see if you Google the Mekong Delta. The views are wonderful, and as we did it at low tide you could see where the water normally came up to, which was kind of ethereal and cool. The downside was that the lady paddling our boat spent most of the 15-minute trip demanding that we tip her. She’d point to where other people had left dollars or dong in other boats and kept up a running commentary of ‘Tip? Tip!’ so much that I nearly told her ‘Never pat a burning dog. Oh and always cleanse, tone and moisturise instead of just using soap, you’ll really notice a difference.’

Riverboat on the Mekong Delta, Vietnam
Traffic jam…
The Mekong Delta, Vietnam
The delta’s water is actually quite clean – the colour comes from the soil, which is very fertile. It’s also freshwater, which is why the islands are so green.

There was no beautiful rest stop on the way back into Saigon, unfortunately, but there was a thunderstorm. I didn’t manage to get a good picture of the drenched motorcyclists, but I did find it interesting that they use their giant plastic ponchos to cover the moped’s handlebars and main light as well as protecting them and two or three people sitting behind them… I have no idea why it hasn’t caught on at home.

Next up: exploring Saigon!

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Bring a Torch to Cambodia

It’s been a heavy few blogs, so here is a treat for you at home in the UK on what I’m assuming is a dismal February day: I went to a beach and it was excellent. Well if we’re going to get into it, I went to a few beaches. There were multiples of excellence. Come read and pretend you were there too!

Sihanoukville

Not a cute name on the Sims (I think it was named after Norodom Sihanouk, the late king), Sihanoukville is a town on the south coast of Cambodia. I haven’t frequented a Spanish beach resort for about a decade, but I have a feeling local developers are using the Costa del Sol as a template – there is a lot of development and a lot of nationally ambiguous tourist junk, so visit soon if you want to actually feel like you’re in South East Asia and not just a really far away Malaga.

After a night at a hostel at one end of town, in which some drunk Russians came into our dorm at 3am and started an argument with an English guy, we headed along the coast to Otres beach. It’s quieter than the main beach, Serendipity, although our hostel had a beach bar that played what can only be described as ‘the result of someone punishing their electronic music app’ so I probably would have spontaneously combusted if we’d stayed anywhere busier. We were in a 14 bed dorm, which I was apprehensive about until it turned out that the dorm took up the entire floor of the hostel and didn’t have any windows. Not as in, they’d forgotten to put any in (not that it would surprise me) but that the first floor had a veranda running along the edge with a sloping roof, so although there were bathrooms and private rooms attached, the dorm was technically open air. The bunks actually felt quite private, because they were all covered in their own mosquito nets.

Otres 2 Beach, Sihanoukville, Cambodia
That’s wonky, isn’t it. The island looks like it’s about to slide down to the edge of the image.

On our first evening a storm threw the power out for half an hour, and on the second the generators stopped working for an hour of their own accord. Or possibly the hostel had their electricity cut off. Staff had their own theories. The wifi was shite, which was probably a blessing in disguise; I woke up at 3am on Saturday morning and couldn’t work out why I felt ill, then remembered that a certain thatch haired psychopath was being sworn into government around about that very time… the next day everyone at breakfast was watching the Al Jazeera coverage with identical expressions of exhausted disgust (and it takes a lot to unite a group of half asleep backpackers from eight separate countries who spent the previous night resenting one another for making too much noise).

Koh Rong Island

There are a lot of islands off Cambodia’s coast and a lot of travelers hop across; we picked Koh Rong, the largest, because we knew there was space at a hostel we could afford (money and hostel availability dictate most of our movements). There was a lot of wind on the day we traveled, and we were told that we’d change ferries part way through. I was trying to work out the logistics of moving our stuff from the boat then onto the quay and back again when it transpired that the ferries had pulled parallel to one another we were literally going to step from one onto the other. Bags were passed over by crew, and I’m pretty sure something fell off one into the depths of the Gulf of Thailand.

I did not know before we booked that Koh Rong is ‘the party island’, but I also did not know how isolated our particular hostel was. We had to wait for their supply boat to pick us up from the main beach, and because the wind was so strong we ended up being dropped off a beach early and trekking through a bit of jungle until we reached ours. I was wearing flip flops; one of the bar staff, who had stayed on the main beach the night before, had no shoes at all. Apparently you just have to keep your eyes open for snakes… my glasses were covered in sea spray from three or four hours of waves the size of cars, so I fully expected imminent death and my relief at making it to civilisation was halted only when I realised the toilet/shower block was made from concrete, contained no soap or flushing  mechanisms and was home to several of the island’s insects. It was also along a sandy pathway littered with tree roots, plants and leaf litter, and lit by approximately one light.

As was the path to our tent.

Other than that, though, we spent three days in paradise. The enforced relaxation (no wifi, main beach about 3 kilometers away) sent me a bit bananas, but these days a digital detox is probably something we should all do at least three times a week, so I relearnt the art of the siesta and made friends with a questionable Jack Reacher novel whose final pages had been lost. Was the kidnapping genuine? Did Reacher sleep with the grieving sister? What happened to the original assassin? I’ll never know (although I can guess, and I don’t know which is more entertaining). I also tripped on a tree root on the beach and bruised my foot, then got a rash sitting on a hammock but neither of those things are as fun as another beach photo, so:

Koh Rong Island, Cambodia
Less wonky? I think less wonky.

(The rash went after I got moisteriser from a pharmacy in Ho Chi Minh; the foot still aches sometimes but I’m carrying my belongings around on my back and averaging a museum a week so there’s not much I can do about it… thank god for four hour bus journeys?)

Unless I write something else about the thatch haired psychopath, the next post will be about Vietnam. Spoiler alert: I’ve already visited a beach.

God Exists. #Justice4Leo

I would like to thank leap day for the opportunity to eat an extra day’s worth of crispbread. Did anyone else get up today and think ‘I had better make it count since the gods have granted mercy on my workload and blessed me with an extra day to get my shit done’? And did anyone else spend half of that day in a state of ridiculous happiness about Leonardo diCaprio at the Oscars?

Good. I mean, I feel like one of my uncles just won the Academy Award. It’s like he’s risen above the sea of racist family banter and decade-old cliques to slay at the annual murder mystery.

LEO FUCKIN WON AMEN from Villiage Roadshow Pictures
from Villiage Roadshow Pictures

There is a lot of shit in this world, but a small wrong has been righted and somewhere there is a lesson for us all.

Dinner time: ‘If Leonardo diCaprio can wait 22 years for on Oscar you can wait a little longer for dinner to cook young lady’

Customer service: ‘You waited a whole day for your Xbox to arrive? Well come back in 22 years’

Traffic jams: ‘It takes longer to get down the M25 than it did for diCaprio to get an Oscar’

Teachers: ‘Now we know five years seems a long time to study, but it took a certain golden-haired angel two decades to win acclaim for his work, so you just take this B and think about what subjects you want to take at uni’

And the one I’m going to holler at everyone: ‘if Leo waited 22 years to win an Oscar you can wait two fucking minutes for me to get the door’

Oh, the possibilities. Okay I’m going to go read screenplays and exercise and do all the other things I never get round to the rest of the year.

In Which My Dog Cleans His Teeth

Today I learnt that in the three-and-a-half years they’ve been open, my WordAds adverts have earned me a total of $14.74. I feel this is representative of my career as an artist.

As you may have noticed if you’re reading this onsite instead of in the email inbox (does anyone still do that?), I’ve made the banner slightly brighter. It’s now the same shade as roughly one-fifth of my hair on a good day. I’ve also added a little cookies info banner for visitors when you first arrive, because it’s an EU law thing and although my instinct is telling me to vote stay, it’s also telling me that we’ll go and I want to get my money’s worth of widgets before 23rd June. Stay tuned for a couple of other little changes; I have been thinking about my ideal blog and right now, the colour pink and more widgets are on my to-do list. I kind of want a blog personifying this:

Top 10 Gay Bars in Los Angeles/My Chemical Romance's Gerard Way Made Me a Better Person
laweekly.com

 

But that’s enough about me. On Sunday I went to clean my teeth and noticed a small daddy long legs nestled on the handle part of my toothbrush. Had it just wandered in from the bathroom window? Was it the first of a scouting party? Was there a nest of baby daddy long legs ready to move into the sink area? Could I remove it from the room before it got to the tooth-brushing part of the toothbrush?

No.

Out went the spider. Out came my travel toothbrush. Out came my grumblings that I only bough the old toothbrush a fortnight ago this is why I’m an atheist. Yesterday evening I bought a new one.

Yesterday evening Donnie got bored or hungry waiting for us to come home from the supermarket so he raided the bathroom bin. I found very chewed half of a toothbrush on the bathroom floor. Presumably he heard me bemoaning his disgusting teeth (he’s not allowed those teeth-cleaning bones because of his kidney problems, and he does not understand the point of chewing rubber tooth-cleaning dog toys. Ironically my toothbrush was made of the same material they use in those rubber toys) This morning Mum found bristle-filled dog vomit on the floor.

Donnie’s teeth are as grim as they were yesterday morning. Our carpet is a little grimmer. The only thing any of us have learnt is that it’s high time we bought a dog-proof bin.

I am prepared to bet the spider has snuck back in.

Would You Like that Gift Wrapped? A Question About Customer Service

I must say if I had known how well people would react to a blog about the perils of salad, I’d have opened up about IBS a lot earlier. Watch the cracked tiles for more anecdotes, I guess.

This week I have been wonderfully, amazingly busy packaging up Etsy orders, most of them for Valentine’s Day (or I presume they are, since they’ve nearly all been postcards with puns about the Greek gods) and I’ve also had some lovely feedback from customers – the sort of stuff that makes you smile and stand up a bit straighter. I try to offer the sort of service I’d like to experience myself, like lots of communication about processing times, cute packaging that makes a change from bills, and inexpensive postage. Essentially I’d like to be a more time-and-customer sensitive version of this:

Let me send you cinnamon sticks.

Anyway, I have been thinking about what makes good customer service and how everyone has different standards (the fact a bow wasn’t tied on the cellophane in that clip would have upset some people) and I was wondering if you guys have any horror stories or good experiences to share? In a shop the other day, the cashier complimented my purse but didn’t make eye contact, so it felt like he was trotting out a line more out of general politeness (and because his boss told him to) than because he actually gave a shit. In a ceramics studio in Zante, the proprietor served home made lemonade and gave my friend a free accessory because they were both artists.

Do you expect free lemonade? Do you expect eye contact? Do you secretly want lavender added to every bag ever?

Stories From the Bathroom Floor

In my notes about what I could potentially discuss on Indifferent Ignorance is a bullet pointed list called ‘food/exercise’. It’s purple. I think I wrote it last summer. It’s part of a bigger list and it includes the phrase ‘shit no one explains’. It’s a lil in joke with future me, because I’m referring to IBS. I’ve never really talked about it before because nobody wants to read about other people’s digestion issues. I don’t even like to read about my own, and I have kept many a food-related diary over the years. But one of the reasons I haven’t posted this week is that I’ve been dying having a lot of baths and grinding my teeth about a stomachache that won’t fucking go away and when I thought about it, I’ve learnt a lot about IBS and if there’s one thing that distracts me from being unwell, it’s talking about myself under the pretence of helping others. So here is an anecdotal piece of maybe-advice about Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

On Tuesday I ate a salad. It was a really great salad. I am usually a garnish-and-vegan-mayo kind of person whenever someone serves lettuce but I was in a farm shop and salad was the only thing on the menu I could digest anyway, so I ate the lot plain. Because it was fresh from a farm shop and there was cheese with it, I was happy (heads up: I’m not lactose intolerant. My gut has aligned with my tastebuds’ love of smoky cheese.) Within half an hour I was less happy. In fact I was lying on my bed asking God for an implement with which I could remove my stomach. This was because, while dazzled by the farm shop’s cute whitewashed walls and organic produce, I ate the onion that came with the salad and one of those schmancy totally locally-produced apple juices. Which brings me to IBS Lesson Number One:

A large part of living with Irritable Bowl is learning about your trigger foods. Two of mine – wheat and eggs – were helpfully discovered by a pharmacist via a blood test when I was 16 and thought I was a Ceoliac (that is a story for another time). I discover the others by a process of trial, error and vomiting. On Tuesday, ravenous and feeling guilty about the two toffees I ate in the hairdresser’s, I forgot that the reason I leave raw onions on the plate every time I’m served them, and the reason I never drink fruit juice, is that they both give me varying degrees of stomachaches. So I’ve spent the rest of the week taking medicine before I eat, cooking porridge even more than usual and updating my list of stupid things I’ve done in 2016.

woman-lying-bathroom-floor-pain
How did you get into my bathroom??? from ibtimes.com

In the spirit of honesty, I should probably add that ‘stomachaches’ can include but aren’t limited to: stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhoea and/or constipation, puking, flatulence, shaking, excessive sweating, belching and acid reflux. If you’re really lucky, you get more than one in one go!

There is TV to watch and Etsy to attend to, so I will leave this here. Maybe next time I will tell you all about how I spent Super Saturday with my head down a toilet (see above photo for reference) or share a graphic description of the sweats. Do other IBS sufferers get the sweats? Do non-IBS sufferers get the sweats? Is there a technical term for the sweats?!

Let me know.