Sisters on Sabbatical: 3 Days in Hanoi, Vietnam

Sylvia & I at a local lunch spot in Hanoi’s French Quarter


Sabbaticals are the new black! My sister, Sylvia, has been dreaming about her sabbatical for years and I was honoured to be invited to join her in South East Asia for a small part of it. My husband, David, completed his nine week sabbatical in August (and has about six more exotic Ironman races to compete in over the next couple of years) and so he put his hand up to look after the children while I flitted off to Hanoi (and Halong Bay) for a week. (Thanks, babe!)

Hello Hanoi

A fairly typical Hanoi retail & residential street

Before leaving, I somehow got the impression that Hanoi’s Old Quarter was going to consist of cobbled streets and French bistros. Whilst I absolutely loved our time there, I wouldn’t say that Hanoi is a beautiful city. It’s a capital city with majestic state department buildings well maintained by the one-party state. The rest is a cacophany of messy micro enterprises, peeling paintwork, a sea of mopeds on every street and pavements stacked with illegally parked scooters. It’s noisy, it’s dilapidated and it’s intense. But it was like nothing I’d ever really experienced before and I had a great time.

Timmy the Tourist in Hanoi
After falling for an elaborate scam on honeymoon in communist Cuba in 2006, my appetite for “authentic” adventure travel waned a little. (Our second honeymoon was a package deal at a 5 star resort in Mauritius – the kind of honeymoon we’d scorned as reserved for the narrow-mind and the dull.) Since having children, I’m all about the kids club and couldn’t care less about never leaving the confines of the resort walls. In Hanoi, however, it was like my twenty-something self was back and I recalled arriving in Rome at age 23 and being bitterly disappointed that all my new international hostel buddies were desperate to find the nearest Irish Pub “where people at least speak English, right?” (With my dreams of meeting sophisticated Italians in the manner of Eat-Pray-Love shattered, I went along to O’Shagans or whatever. When in Rome…do as your fellow backpackers do).

For me, Hanoi was a fantastic mix of what looked and felt like an “authentic” view of Vietnamese life, yet the tourist market is well established so that it still felt like a holiday and not like, ahem, hard work. (I’m getting old). The day we arrived we headed south of the “tourist map”, in search of a particular bridal boutique (Sylvia is getting hitched in November). We walked the streets for a good couple of hours and only saw one other Westerner. This left me with the impression that there were hardly any tourists in the city, which is not the case. Certain streets in the Old Quarter felt almost claustrophobically tourist-centric (backpackers; tour booking outfits; hotels; scooters for rent) but most of Hanoi feels like it’s being enjoyed by the Vietnamese. Even some of the spots obviously aimed at Western tastes in the stylish French Quarter, seem to be largely frequented by locals.

Crossing The Street

On our bridal boutique adventure on Day 1, I stood trying to cross the street for what felt like ages. Sylvia had seen a gap earlier and bolted. I really was trying to be brave but I kept thinking, “I have small children” and honestly, it didn’t just seem unsafe, it seemed impossible. Eventually, a kind local lady came up to me, took me by the arm and calmly led me through this sea of scooters, before nodding and then disappearing, fairy godmother-style. A few days later, I came across this advice for foreigners from a local tour company:

“Beat the Street”

“Some first time visitors are shocked by the way traffic flows and worry about crossing the street. Take a few minutes to watch how Vietnamese people do it: look at the oncoming traffic, but avoid direct eye contact; step slowly but deliberately forward; maybe raise an arm in the air to be seen more clearly; stop if you are unsure if a rider has seen you; never step backwards – no rider will be expecting that.”

There you go, then. Simple.

Walking Food Tour (& Water Puppets Show)

The highlight of the trip for me was the food tour that Sylvia booked. First, our guide dropped us at a water puppets show which is apparently a famous must-see local thing. The concept of water puppets is like nothing I’ve ever seen before, it was stunningly executed and the puppets were beautiful. (It does get a little tedious after a few scenes and you are sitting with a hundred other iPhone touting tourists, but it’s only 50 mins so it’s worth it if you’ve never seen water puppets before.)

Water Puppet Show

After the theatre, we were joined by the lovely Bridget from North London (recently relocated to Singapore) for our walking food tour. Our guide was an irrepressibly bubbly, intelligent, positive 24 year old university graduate named Trang (apparently pronounced more like “Chang”) from Vietnam Awesome Travel. She took us to about five or six eateries (yes, I did lose count) and I absolutely LOVED basically all the food (and I don’t have an incredibly adventurous palate).

Bridget (London); me; Sylvia; Trang (our guide)

I noticed that many of the eateries had some form of English in their signage, obviously hoping to capture the tourist market. Yet, we were almost always the only Westerners in the establishment, so at the risk of sounding corny, the experience did feel pretty authentic.

1st Hanoi Food Tour Stop for Bun Cha (pork & noodles)

The One Dish Policy & Street Eateries

Something that took me a while to understand is the concept of restaurant in Hanoi. Firstly, most Vietamese places serve one dish only. It sounds odd but that’s why it was great to have a guide who took us to the best place for pork spring rolls, steamed pancakes or sticky rice yoghurt. The second is that it’s the exception for a restaurant to have adult-sized tables and chairs. Most local eateries have teeny tiny plastic chairs and tables (which, happily I’m quite used to from hanging out with teeny tiny people for the past four years). Apparently, this is partly because the “restaurants” set up on pavements are illegal so small, light, plastic pieces of furniture can be quickly stacked, run away with and hidden. For the legal restaurants in buildings, I get the impression it has to do with space, cost, coming out of communism into fledgling entrepreneurship and because it’s practical: Vietnamese people are mostly small and light. (I am sure that obesity is starting to become an issue as Western influences take hold and as affluence increases, but I did not see many even slightly overweight people in Hanoi – and they eat noodles for breakfast and aren’t shy of pork but there’s always lots of veg and broth, portions are small and the food doesn’t feel heavy).

Beat the Street. Or, um, have dinner on it?

Scams, Safety, Hawkers and Strangers in Range Rovers

The guide books warn of the classic taxi scam: driving unsuspecting tourist around in circles and charging accordingly, when their destination is actually around the corner. This has spurned a whole sub-market where tourists are encouraged to pay a reputable company up-front for a journey from say, the airport to their hotel, but, unbeknownst to the clueless tourist, get charged a 30% premium over and above a legitimate taxi’s market rate. But at least you weren’t ripped off by a scamster, right? From the constraints of Communism, Capitalist innovation has emerged…

In terms of safety, Sylvia and I walked the city by day and by night. Mostly, vendors tried to hard-sell us bananas from their bicycles or old editions of Lonely Planet from the backs of their mopeds. Otherwise, anyone who was close enough to a Range Rover to suggest that they may own it, tended to break out their best English to engage our attention. Apparently, luxury car purchases attract up to 100% in import taxes, so paying double its value for a Range Rover evidently imbues a man with double the confidence..

In Summary

Sylvia and I looked at one another on numerous occasions and said “Mom would hate it here!” The traffic and the noise would have driven my mother absolutely crazy and I have to say that by the last day, I was tired of not being able to walk on pavements jam-packed with mopeds and weary of the incessant noise. The history of Vietnam is tragic and heart wrenching and the country’s “state capitalism” is far from democratic. But it was a fascinating experience and I would return to Vietnam in a heartbeat.

Why I’m Glad You’re My Dad: To My Father On The Eve Of His 70th Birthday

Dear Dad,

I felt that today, on the eve of your 70th birthday, it was important for me to tell you publicly, why I am so glad that you are my Dad.

Although I was too young to recall doing puzzles with you, I am told that we bonded over jigsaws when I was still in nappies. When you sat patiently with me, separating the inside pieces from the outside pieces and, together we built puzzles. It explains why I love puzzles so much. I only wish humans had the capacity for earlier memories.

One of my earliest memories is our family trip to Durban when I was “three and three quarters”. I know I was that age because you had told me so and I, in turn, told anyone who asked. And I told them earnestly and with pride. To this day, your sense of humour and that memory, make me smile.

I recall your being tasked with the job of ensuring that I was warm enough at bedtime in winter – an impossible task as I have never been known to declare that I feel sufficiently warm when it’s cold.

“Are you warm enough?” you’d ask.

“No!” I’d reply.

And you’d fetch me another blanket (one of those thick, old-fashioned, heavy, rug-like blankets). This would be repeated two or three times before you’d say:

“This is just weight now, Natalie! It’s not warmth!”

And I’d giggle in mock protest and insist that I was still cold and you’d obligingly go down the passage to find me another blanket until all of the spare blankets in the house were on top of me. I think about those moments every single time I am cold, in bed and wishing for another blanket.

From Standard Two to Standard Five, for each and every test I ever wrote, my studying process was never complete until you had “tested me”. I still have visions of us sitting on the couch, you holding my school notebook and patiently asking me questions about the subject matter to test my knowledge. Those sessions with you were not only a lot of fun, but they gave me such confidence. It’s probably good that I was forced to go-it-alone at boarding school in high school or I don’t think I would have passed my university degree without you there to test me.

In Standard Five, I came home mortified after my Maths exam. I’d left out a certain number of marks in the paper. It was printed double-sided and I hadn’t realized and had left out an entire page. You and Mom tried to console me. I felt as though it were the end of the world but deep down I did understand that it was just one of those too-bad-so-sad things that happen in life and that I’d need to grow up and get over it. The next day, however, I was called to the principal’s office and there you were, seated across the desk from him. You’d convinced him to let me complete the paper then and there.

25 years later, it’s irrelevant what I got for Maths in Standard Five but what will always stick with me is how you fought for me, without even being asked. I’m not sure that the self-involved twelve year old version of me ever did thank you. Thank you, Dad.

And though I loathed you for it at the time, I respected you for turning the car around with my friend and I inside, when you discovered that we’d rented a 2-18 movie for the weekend. You didn’t have to say much: the mortification of handing it back to the video store owner twenty minutes later, was punishment enough.

But the main reason why I am so glad you are my Dad and one of the reasons why my childhood is so full of such wonderful home and family memories is because you were always there: dropping us at school, testing us, checking our homework, at bath time, at supper time, watching the A-team at 7pm, at bedtime, at sports day (the one time I accidentally made it to interschools), at prize-giving, at Rotary Exchange interviews – you were there, always, loving us and looking after that.

And these are the things I treasure about you, Dad.

Happy 70th birthday. You’re a survivor!



Poetry & Babyccinos in Cape Town

There's no denying it: Cape Town spots have character. And style. And creativity. And charm. And they're chic and sophisticated with a touch of art. I wouldn't necessarily have said that Cape Town places are poetic, but then I came across this counter coffee-shop-cum-deli opposite Cavendish yesterday:

No wonder Capetonians are so chilled out. I mean, who wouldn't like a little bit of TS Eliot with their morning latte? 

Even the babyccinos are served in style, here in the Southern Suburbs. They come on little heart-shaped, over-sized saucers. From mommy to toddler, with love:

But back to TS Eliot. I absolutely love the "coffee spoons" passage from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock about life, longevity, reflection, regret and banal, everyday indulgences:

For I have known them all already, known them all,
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons

If you'd like to see the whole poem (just as readable as this fabulous extract), click on this link:

I'm off to go raid my suitcase for every red, yellow, green and black item in it. I'm willing to go out in public looking like a Rastafarian gone wrong. Only because I want Ghana to slaughter the Uruguayans and their blonde nancy boy, Diego Forlan, tonight. That would be poetic justice.

Cape Town International

I’ve always reckoned that a good rule of thumb on 'planes is that if your neighbour hasn’t proved to be Chatty Pants in the first ten minutes, then you’re home free. A couple of weeks ago, though, I realised that I’m going to need to modify this theory on the free booze flights (the few that still exist). Two mini bottles of Chenin Blanc down, my 60-something neighbour decided it was time we met, JUST as we were preparing to land. By this stage all my leave-me-the-eff-alone-accessories had been dutifully packed away (laptop, I-pod, book) and I was left with little option but to speak back.

He was an ex-Joburger who’d emigrated to CT and was a die hard Kaapener my whole life before converting to Jozi-ism. Invariably, we had the “why-Cape-Town-is-so-much-better-than-Joburg” debate. My favourite. No, really. In the same way as Jews for Jesus are even more fervent than their reborn counter-parts, I am constantly shooting my mouth off about how FAN-tastic Joburg is.

Anyhoo, after old Chenin Blanc had run through all the obvious CT selling points (wine, mountains, wine, the new stadium and wine), he launched into his promotional pitch for the new airport. “It’s bigger, better, faster, classier, sharper, hotter, cooler, hipper, better,” etc, etc.

Great,” I thought, a week later. Because, you see, yesterday, I walked Cavendish square STUKKEND for a Christmas present for my darling husband – aka “the-man-who-has-everything-or-if-he-doesn’t-he’ll-buy-it”. (This characteristic of his is fantastic when you need any make or shape of electronic device – pronto, but it’s less fun when you need to buy him a present.) However, given old Chenin’s sales pitch on the super new, super fab airport, I figured I’d simply pick up something there. So NOT. Unless you are looking for a wooden Giraffe carving from not one but TWO curio stores (out of a total of about 8 shops), do not leave your holiday shopping to the last minute. Needless to say, my husband cannot be left cooped up in a security enclosed retail space without being absolutely compelled to contribute to consumer spending. Bless him. Even under the utterly miserable retail conditions in Cape Town’s new international airport, he managed to get some gadgets. (All I can do now is hi-jack his goods and wrap them up as his Christmas gift).

On the bright side, though, Cape Town really has made airport security a mega-priority. I was lucky enough to experience this first hand when I witnessed three uniformed policemen trying to sweet-talk the Premier lounge receptionist into smuggling out free drinks for them. But she was hardcore and she wasn’t having any of it. “Can you see the cameras?” she responded, wagging her finger at them. “There they are”.

Nice one, officers.

Failing in that little endeavour, the Kaap se Coppers decided to amuse themselves in other ways. I happened to be standing at the reception desk at the time.

“Don’t I know you from somewhere?” the one asked.

Mentally rolling my eyes, I replied that I didn’t think so as I tried to stay on the right side of the law. (I don’t think he saw the irony).

Naai, man,” he said, “aren’t you on the TV?”

Much better, dude.
For that you can have a celebrity smile.