Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Travelling with kids in Vietnam

Georgia - 2-years-old in Mai Chau, Vietnam

For many parents the prospect of travelling with young children is daunting, let alone travelling to a country that’s still developing.

Vietnam may not seem like a logical travel destination with young children in tow, but from the north to the south there are plenty of options to keep both kids and parents satisfied.

In the last 18 months we have lived in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and as parents of 3-year-old twins we have tried and tested many of the country's kid-friendly destinations (with more to visit!).

My article in September's East & West magazine gives an insider's view on the best places to holiday with kids in Vietnam.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

{Expat life} I think I'm turning Vietnamese, I really think so!

Crazy D2 traffic

Not something I should admit publicly, but the longer I spend in Vietnam the more I unconciously disregard the basic social pleasantries required to function in western society.

For example, in Australia if I accidentally bumped into someone on the street I would immediately turn and apologise. Here, I have slowly adjusted to the fact that knocking over a stranger isn't considered rude - it's merely a bi-product of the frenetic south-east asian culture.

At times, someone trying to bust their way into the elevator before I have exited causes me a moment of outrage, but (unfortunately) I have started to accept this as normal behaviour.

Not, mind you, that I go as far as pushing my way ahead of others - I still wait my turn and hold open doors for people coming after me - but the fact that I'm not afforded the same courtesy doesn't bug me as much as it did 18 months ago.

In expat circles we refer to this as becoming "Vietnamised" - an often slow realisation that our way is not always going to be the dominant behaviour and an eventual adjustment that comes with living in this society after a period of time.

The fact that we've slowly become Vietnamised recently hit home as Team Somerville has entered discussions about buying a "family" motorbike. Yes, that's right, not a family vehicle - a bike! Very Vietnamese!

Rewind only 6 months ago and I would have given anyone who would listen a stern lecture about the dangers of riding around on a motorbike with toddlers.

Now we're in the thick of an expat community where many foreigners consider it normal to transport the kids on a bike (with safety helmets of course) my recent frustration with the traffic in D2 is causing a rethink on my previously staunch beliefs!

Watch this space as Team Somerville grapples with this surprising reality and searches for a new ride!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

{Saigon Sights} Water puppets

Vietnamese water puppets

If you're travelling in Vietnam with young children, a visit to a traditional water puppet theatre should be on your list.

The art of water puppetry originated in the flooded rice fields of the Red River Delta. Farmers carved puppets from water-resistant fig tree timber in figures modelled on villagers, animals and mystical creatures such as the dragon, phoenix and the unicorn. Performances were staged in ponds, lakes or flooded paddy fields.

Today, modern performances of water puppetry use a square tank of waist-deep water for the stage. The water is generally murky to conceal the magic behind the puupet peformance, with up to eleven puppeteers involved.

The puppeteers stand in water behind a bamboo screen working puppets attached to a long pole to make the audience believe each character is literally walking on water.

Traditional music, generally provided by a live band, is almost as important as the action on the water stage.

Water puppetry originated in northern Vietnam, so undoubtedly the best place to see the puppets is at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre in Hanoi.

In Saigon, tourists who don't travel north can watch water puppets at the War Remnants Museum or the History Museum, both in District 1.

This week, through word of mouth, we discovered a relatively new venue to watch water puppets in Saigon that is surprisingly close to our house.

Thao Dien Village in District 2 is a 12,000 sqm riverfront property with a hotel and a number of international standard restaurants. In the village is fine dining Vietnamese restaurant Ngon which has a gorgeous outdoor dining area and a traditional water puppet theatre. The restaurant holds performances every Saturday night from 7.30pm to 8.00pm.

With starters from as little as 20,000 VND and mains ranging from 110,000 up to 290,000 VND, this is certainly not the cheapest Vietnamese cuisine you'll eat in Saigon, but the food and service is superb. With a gorgeous location fronting the Saigon river and a water puppet show, this is a unique opportunity to enjoy a combination of local cuisine and traditional Vietnamese entertainment.

The show doesn't have live music, and we defintely did not see 11 puppeteers when the screen was lifted at the end of the performance (there was only one guy, but may'be the others were shy??) but this is still a worthy performance. Fueled by fabulous cocktails, an extensive wine list and tasty food, the adults will probably enjoy the experience even more than the kids!

Insider tip: there are a limited number of tables in the outdoor area, so if you know you're going to be in Saigon on a Saturday night be sure to book ahead.

Ngon - 195 Nguyen Van Huong Street, Thao Dien Ward, District 2. For bookings phone +84 8 3744 6457

Monday, August 16, 2010

{Saigon Snaps} Roadworks chaos

Which way do we go?

This photo demonstrates the chaos that greeted us this morning as we turned out of our street onto the highway! The morning peak hour drama was caused by the many locals who had no idea that the road routes had changed literally overnight (and yes, for the record, we were also surprised by the changes!).

I have previously commented on this blog that the highway crossing to our street in An Phu makes it highly likely we'll get t-boned by a fast moving truck in the near future. "The powers that be" have apparently tried to resolve this problem with an overpass off the highway so An Phu residents heading to the Vista, Villa Riviera and Riverside developments can avoid the dangerous crossing.

We thought that was fabulous news until we discovered on our return journey this evening that there isn't an exit ramp leading off the highway to our overpass...no, we now have to turn right, go down the road for 1km and do a u-turn back for (the same) 1km to get onto the overpass! WHAT THE?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

{Saigon Streets} Bui Vien

Bui Vien Street, District 3

Pick up a copy of the Lonely Planet Guide to Vietnam and it describes Bui Ven (and the surrounding streets of Pham Ngu Lau and De Tham) in District 1 as a "backpacker gehtto".

Today we discovered that this area isn't just for backpackers, it's perfect for the more "mature" tourist in search of a bargain as well as us resident expats after larger sized clothes and international fashion brands.

Our first stop was SSUZI swimwear at 127 Bui Vien. I have enough trouble finding swimwear in Australia and my experience, so far, in Vietnam has been worse. I had read about this store on Bui Vien - a local designer that makes western style bikinis and summer dresses - and happily I wasn't disappointed! They have small sizes perfect for the Vietnamese (and for those of us who need a bit of help in the bust department!) as well as larger sizes for foreigners. The material may not be the same thickness and quality of the $80 Billabong bikinis we buy back home, but walking out of the store with my $11 bikini I was pretty chuffed. Can always go back for another if it falls apart!

On our way to the Circle K convenience store to buy water we discovered Devil at 137 Bui Vien, a funky fashion store with streetwear, boardies, t-shirts (in sizes to fit the large foreigners!) but best of all they stocked Havaianas and Crocs - so I was in shoe shopping heaven! In the 18 months since we left Australia Wally has chewed through both my havaianas (as well as the thongs I bought from Accesorize in Hanoi) so I was excited by this find. Havaianas for US$18 a pair and Croc thongs for US$40.

Our other favourite was a shop called U.Best House at 51 Bui Vien. This place is a treasure trove for foreigners, kind of like an army disposal store, with everything from flashlights and binoculars, to funky mens and womens casual clothing and bags. It even stocked a good range of calvin klein underwear. Whatever you could possibly think you might want when travelling, this shop has it crammed in somewhere! We even found a range of cycling gear. Completely random but well worth a visit. The staff are friendly and speak English.

Amongst all of the shops aimed at tourists are cafes, restaurants and bars covering a broad range of international cuisines. This street also houses two restaurants on our highly recommended list from expat friends - Coriander, a thai restaurant at 185 Bui Vien and Mumtaz, an indian restaurant across the road at 226 Bui Vien.

At the top end of Bui Vien (off Nguyen Thai Hoc), turn right at the first street you come to and you'll be on 28 Bui Vien - a strip of budget hotels, cafes, restaurants and sports bar aimed at the backpacker market.

28 Bui Vien

We finished off our morning with lunch at the recently opened Boston Sport Bar at 28/4 Bui Vien - a bar that claims to serve "real" North American food with pizza, pasta and BBQ ribs on the menu. The food is cheap and the pizzas are good.

This area is the only experience we've had in Saigon that comes close to Hanoi's Old Quarter - a touristy, bustling area of commerce, with women in conical hats pushing fruit carts and friendly cyclo drivers pestering you at every turn. But unlike the narrow streets in the north where you're constantly in danger of being hit by a motorbike, Bui Vien offers a bit more space for a casual stroll.

Bui Vien's fruit lady!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

{Saigon Snaps} Drive-thru haircuts

Snapped in Saigon 1.20pm today on the corner of Ton Duc Thang and Ngo Van Nam Streets. The Vietnamese love convenience...roadside haircuts Saigon style!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

{Expat life} Just another day in Vietnam!

A fine example of the dodgy cables in Tay Ho, Hanoi

Tonight when I got home from work, as I always do, I looked in my housekeeper's notebook to see what bills she has paid and what money she has spent.

No, I'm not excercising my control freak gene, I simply need to know how much money she has left so I can hand over more if required. After all, she's running my household and feeding my children!

In today's entry was a receipt for a paid electricity bill - an alarming total of 5 million VND (USD 263) for one month! Ouch!

I'll resist comments about how much more expensive electricity is in Saigon (and not to mention how much more we pay here than we do in Australia!), and tell you a funny story about the first time we got our monthly utilities, phone and cable bills in Hanoi.

It was April 2009. Having lived in a serviced apartment for most of our 9 week stay in Vietnam, we didn't quite understand the percularities that came with renting a residence in this country.

When we signed our lease for the house in Ciputra I assumed we'd have to connect electricity, water, cable tv and Internet in our name. No...not in Vietnam! The landlord (and our housekeeper) were very insistent that all bills should remain in their name and we would receive the bills to pay each month.

I then assumed the bills would arrive in the mail each month, and our (then) housekeeper Quyen would translate them for us and we would send her to the utilities company or the bank to pay the bill. Wrong again!

At 10pm on Saturday night as we were sitting in our dining room with expat friends Darrin and Lotta, having consumed far too much alcohol, the doorbell rang. Who could it be at this late hour?

Turns out it was someone from the telephone company with our bill for the month! She handed it over to Rob and promptly asked for the money. You've got to be kidding! Rob told her to get back on her moped and go away (in not so friendly language!)

We had a laugh with our friends (who didn't know better because they lived in a serviced apartment in the city) and thought it must have been some kind of scam targeting expats.

A few mornings later as I was bundling the girls into the pram ready for a trip to the local playground, a woman (apparently from the electricity company) cornered me at the gate, waving my bill and asking for money. I told her she should speak to the housekeeper. She of course couldn't understand English so she went on her way (probably cursing the stupid expat!).

When I got back to the house I showed our housekeeper the electricity bill and asked her to explain whether this was normal practice in Vietnam or someone trying to scam us.

She patiently explained that it was indeed the way it was done in Vietnam (of course!) but that we should always just take the bill and tell them to come back so she could hand over the money and make sure it was legit.

As a cynic I know sending someone to personally collect the money, like a mini mafia of debt collectors, is the only way companies will receive money owed from many areas in the community.

But, now that I've grown used to this new level of personalised customer service, I can't imagine how I'll remember to pay my bills when I move back to Australia!

Just another day in Vietnam!

Monday, August 9, 2010

{Saigon school moments} Georgia & Mackenzie's first day of "big" school!

Today was Georgia and Mackenzie's first day of "big" school (pre-pre-Prep!) at the Australian International School in Saigon.

Here's a few snaps of them in their new uniforms. They were very excited about their first day and I'm happy to report they survived day one despite being separated into different classes.

They are growing up way too fast!

Mackenzie (l) and Georgia - first day of school!

They have to grow into the new uniforms!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

{Saigon Snacks} Another long Sunday lunch!

Legend Hotel Saigon - all you can eat buffet

If you're holidaying in Vietnam with kids, and have had your fill of local food, the all you can eat and drink Sunday lunches at the major hotels in Hanoi and Saigon could be just the ticket.

As parents of busy toddlers we're always on the look out for hotels that have a kids area within the restaurant. A perfect way to bribe your kids to eat before going off to play and a way for Mum and Dad to relax with a few drinks while the kids are taken care of.

I hadn't heard of the restaurant kids club concept until we moved to Vietnam. We never dined at hotels in Australia (unless it was a special occasion) because (1) it was ridiculously expensive and (2) I was under the assumption that they weren't kid friendly venues.

In Vietnam this is a growing industry - a fully staffed area within the restaurant to keep the kids entertained - genius! Of course the low cost of labour, and the Vietnamese love of children (particularly light-haired, blue-eyed kids!) makes it a viable business in this country. 

Unfortunately, unlike Hanoi, the large hotels in Saigon don't seem to have the kids club option down pat just yet (although there are a growing number of smaller cafes around the city with playrooms/outdoor playgrounds).

In Hanoi many of the large hotels had fantastic kids clubs that, although fully staffed with babysitters, were also in sight of the restaurant so parents could keep watch.

A few people in our Saigon expat network had recommended the Legend Hotel for its all you can eat international buffet (with free flow wines and beer included in the price), and the attached kids club, so we arrived at 11.30am today ready to eat (and drink!) our fill.

Sadly the kids club was not up to scratch. The room wasn't close enough to the restaurant to make me feel safe about the girls playing in there (and it wasn't staffed) and, as Georgia and Mackenzie would say, the room was "lame". Definitely more suited to babies than toddlers.

Not to worry because the array of food, as well as the friendly ladies at the entrance of the restaurant making balloon animals for the kids, kept them well occupied.

At around US$36 per person, kids under 6 eat free, it was good value.

Legend Hotel Saigon - Ton Duc Thang Street, District 1

If you're in Hanoi visit the Daewoo Hotel - 360 Kim Ma Street, Ba Dinh District.

Although the Daewoo's price of US$25 per person only included a glass of champagne and free flow beer (I need wine!) the kids room within the restaurant was huge.

The room was sponsored by Lego and came with a giant screen to watch movies, a colouring in area, a lego corner and a kiddies buffet, complete with babysitters to help the kids build fantastic Lego creations. Kids under 120cms eat free.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

{Saigon Sights} Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens

Rob and the girls on the Saigon Zoo train

In the heart of Saigon is the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens, lauded by tourism guides as a place to escape the hustle and bustle of the busy city.

Indeed, this is a place to get away from the constant stream of traffic, an open space with grass and tall trees providing relief from the heat and an opportunity to walk around without fear of being hit by a motorbike (although you do have to watch out for the zoo train!) but unfortunately, in my humble opinion, that's where the attraction ends.

Currently, as with so many attractions we have visited in this country, the site is in a state of partial renovation making huge chunks of the zoo a complete eyesore.

Location, relocation!

Top that off with the tiny, smelly habitats housing all manner of animals from around the globe, many of which would force a tear from the most hardened of tourists, and this place is somewhere you'll likely regret entering!

From crocodile enclosures with floating soda cans and chip packets casually discarded by visitors, concrete enclosures with sad looking lions and tigers, and a tiny, filthy hippo waterhole with floating scum (the hippo was submerged the entire time so we're not sure if it was alive!), if this was a zoo in Australia the RSPCA would have had it shut down!

Add to that the behaviour of the many locals who tease the animals and toss them food in plastic wrappers, this is a place that would make most tourists outraged.

The saving grace is the fact that, despite the concrete barren enclosures, the animals look like they are well fed.

Here are some pictures I took of the most disturbing enclosures at the zoo - decide for yourself if I'm exaggerating!

The sad, shackled elephant

The white tigers

The hippo waterhole - is it alive or dead?

Playing devil's advocate, I can see that this place would be attractive to locals who want an escape from the city. As we walked around we saw many families sprawled on the grass with picnics, enjoying their definition of serenity.

As a westerner, the only advantage of walking through the gates is the hope that the paltry amount you hand over as an entrance fee may go some way to improving the livelihood of the animals housed here.

Entrance fees: 12,000 VND per adult and 6,000 VND per child - that's 36,000 VND for a family of four - less than US$2!

Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens - No. 2 Nguyen Binh Khiem, District 1

Friday, August 6, 2010

{Saigon Snaps} Saigon wedding

Snapped in Saigon, 10.10am on Pham Ngoc Thach Street.
Weddings Saigon style!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

{Saigon Snaps} Silly signs

New signs in the toilet cubicles at one of the most upmarket shopping centres in Saigon. I wouldn't have thought the clients frequenting these bathrooms would need such a blunt reminder!

Wall art next to a chicken restaurant in Nha Trang, central Vietnam. Wonder if David Beckham got paid royalties for this one?

What's in a name? A simple spelling mistake or just lost in translation?

Monday, August 2, 2010

{Saigon Snacks} Mandarine

Mandarine - 11A Ngo Van Nam, District 1
Today is our 9th anniversary (that's nine years dating, not married!) - a good an excuse as any to check out another fancy restaurant in our new city!

For those of you following our blog since we arrived in Saigon, you could be forgiven for thinking we don't eat Vietnamese food that often.

Over the last five weeks we've dined at many non-Vietnamese restaurants in Saigon because (1) we didn't have a huge range of international restaurants in Hanoi so we're making up for it now by over-indulging and (2) our housekeeper cooks us tasty Vietnamese meals most nights of the week, so why would we bother eating it out?

Tonight we celebrated with a lavish dinner at Mandarine - voted by many of our friends in Saigon as among the best Vietnamese restaurants in the city.

Mandarine - on Ngo Van Nam in District 1 (the geisha girl street that also houses the fabulous French restaurant La Cuisine) is contemporary Vietnamese at its best, showcasing the country's most popular dishes from the north to the south.

A 3-storey venue with wooden floors and modern Chinese/Vietnamese decor, this restaurant suits both couples and large groups.

The menu is ridiculously extensive. If you haven't been in Vietnam long you're best to go with the one of the many set menus, starting at US$33 per person. But, if like us, you know your Vietnamese cuisine it could take a while to order!

Eventually we decided on the banana flower salad with beef and the grilled scallops in the shell with peanuts for entrees, and stewed caramelised pork with a side of rice as well as Hanoi's famous grilled fish (Cha Ca) as our mains.

Banana flower salad
Grilled scallops

Cha Ca was one of my favourite dishes when we lived in the north and I'm happy to say this version lived up to my very high standards (although it was slightly sweeter than the Hanoi dish). It is also one of the few dishes on the menu that the restaurant staff cook at your table. Delicious!

Cooking our Cha Ca
Cha Ca

We topped off the meal with chocolate mousse for me and Vietnamese kem (ice cream) for Rob.

At just under 2 million VND (around US$100) including tax, this is not the cheapest meal by Vietnam standards. But, if you take into account that almost half of the bill was for the drinks (3 wines and 3 beers) the cost of the food is good value for a restuarant of this very high standard.

As an aside, the service was outstanding! Highly recommended.

Mandarine - 11A Ngo Van Nam, District 1

Nine years has certainly gone fast! For a laugh, here's a few pics of us from the early years (well, at least from the time we bought a digital camera in 2004) on a backpacking trip around Thailand and Singapore.

New Years Eve 2005 - Koh Samui, Thailand

Riding the cable car in Singapore - January 2005

Sunday, August 1, 2010

{Saigon Snaps} Down my street

Walking around our compound with its sealed roads, perfect paving and pruned landscaping, we could almost pretend that we don't live in Vietnam (except for the sound of rice barges, flooding and constant power outages!) But we only need to walk a few metres outside the compound entrance for a reminder.

Sadly, we live on one of those streets that provides a stark picture of the huge divide between the haves and have nots in this country. As more and more suburbs, like the ones in District 2, get taken over by affluent locals and foreigners the small shacks and local cafes are being dwarfed by huge development.

In our street we have:

Huge, imposing villas behind tall security walls

High rise construction

Relatively upmarket local cafes...

... and many not so upmarket local cafes. I've seriously never seen anyone eating at this place!

Roadside drinking stalls. Locals stop here for refreshment and shelter from the rain under the tarps.

And at the end of our street we have a busy highway - the place where we start and end our journey to work each day.

At peak hour it's crazy and late at night as we cross the highway to enter our street we run the risk of being t-boned by the huge trucks that roar towards the city after the 9pm curfew!