Where the motorbike is king

Here in Ho Chi Minh City we’ve been told that there are either 13 million residents and 10 million motorbikes, or 10 million people and 8 million motorbikes. Either way that’s a lot of motorbikes. Cars are very expensive to acquire and operate. In the central business district the traffic is heavy, but not mind boggling.

Today is Saturday and we were off on a tour that was about Saigon street food. Our first stop was a local market. Yesterday we went to the central market, which was representative of local food and crafts, but is not where the locals go day to day.

And they’re off.

Around the outside of the market, street side, are food stalls and small restaurants. In a hurry? Just drive right up and pick up your breakfast …

Drive through, market style.

There are parking spaces (paid) on the street side. But why do that when you can just drive right in?

There is a huge variety of delicious looking foodstuffs on offer.

Rice, ranging from 50 cents/kilo to about 1.80/kilo
Festival of dried fish
Not sure if you pay more or less for the potential addition of cigarette ash!

The interior of the market has all manner of household goods, including a big fabric section.

Wilf was trying to take a picture of me but I kept getting distracted.


And no, I didn’t buy any. Local market – no credit cards, no US dollars.

Tomorrow we are going on a tour to learn about Saigon coffee culture. And if you think we’re big on coffee culture in the west coast – ha! Coffee shops everywhere here. Thought the signage for this chain was pretty good…

And the ever present fleet of motorbikes.

So good I did it twice

Our first port in Vietnam was Da Nang. I’ve sort of lost track of what the original plan was – it didn’t include a stop in Da Nang – but it did include a visit to the town of Hoi An. The plan was to visit the town and go to a cooking school.

The two days at sea to get to Vietnam were rather bumpy, so Wilf decided he didn’t need a bus ride and stayed on board while I joined the excursion.

Once upon a time Hoi An was a major port for Southeast Asia. Chinese and Japanese traders set up residence and this was one of the towns where East met West to do business. Eventually, however, the port silted up, business shifted to Da Namg and Hoi An became a riverside backwater. This fact saved it from being bombed during the Vietnam war and now it is a major tourist destination.

Amongst all the tourist tat there are some beautiful old building – old merchant houses, meeting houses and temples. The historic part of the town is closed to cars in the middle of the day. Nothing to be done about the motorbikes, though.

Our first stop was the central market, which is the food supply for the town. At first it was all fruit and veg.

Soon enough we came to the meat and fish area. There was a bit of horrified muttering in our group ‘no refrigeration! What about the heat?’ I would say – do you smell anything? Nope. All of this stuff was alive a few hours ago and it will all be sold within hours.

This tour was happening on Tuesday, and on Wednesday Wilf and I came back to Hoi An. We went to the market about 2.5 hours later tha my previous visit. And the fish was all sold and the meat vendors were also packing up. Everything all ship shape and proper. After some of the fish and meat markets we’ve been in in other parts of the world (I’m looking at you, Durban.) this was a wonder of cleanliness.

Normally the town is full of tourists. We happened to be there on a rare rainy day, which thinned things out considerably. It did make for a session of swimming up stream like salmon in the teeming rain.

Time for some food!

The cooking school was on the third floor of a building – Chinese restaurant on the second floor, street food market on the first. They were all ready for us in a very slick teaching set up.

We made spring rolls, barbecue chicken thighs, crispy pancakes and green mango salad. It was all delicious!

Shrimp and pork spring roll
Ingredients for chicken marinade
Green mango salad

Everything was so delicious that on the following day we came back. The ship moved from Da Nang to Chan May. We took an excursion from the ship that took us to Hoi An and left us to our own devices for the afternoon, then took us back to the ship. Being us, you know what we did!

Yep – lunch and local beer. The ground floor of this restaurant has a central seating area and little stalls arranged all around the edges where all different types of food were being made.

Dumpling production

We ordered by saying yes to the dumplings, checking out the lady at the next table and her interesting banana leaf packages and generally ‘bring all the food’.

Those are crispy pancakes, Madame.

By the way – yesterday I was rocking the ‘doused by a bucket of water’ look courtesy of the rain. Today I was working that shiny look only high heat and high humidity could bring…..

Once fed we explored the town a bit. There are several very old temples and merchant houses to visit. Being next to the river flooding is an issue. This merchant house is right beside the river. There are markers inside to show how high the water has been. There is an attic area and all the furniture can be hauled up if there is enough warning. The enormous teak pillars that support the house stand on marble pads. In the picture below you can see almost at the top the marker for the 1964 flood, which was devastating…

This area is also famous for its marble production,and families have been in the business for generations. No bus trip is complete without a stop. I’ll leave you with a selection of items that they would have been happy to ship to us…

East meets west, Goddess style

Sailing an uncertain sea

We’ve been enjoying winter cruises in Southeast Asia and we decided that 2020 was the year to explore the eastern range. Previously we have sailed west from Singapore. This time around we thought we’d try Hong Kong to Singapore. Everything was booked last summer and we’ve had it as something to look forward to ever since.

Then came the corona virus. Could we go? Should we go? While we were pondering what we should do the cruise company changed things up – no more Hong Kong. Instead we are to begin in Manila. After much discussion we decided to continue with our plans and off we went. Flew from Vancouver to Seoul and then on to Manila.

We boarded the ship yesterday. And maybe a bit jet lagged – not at our perkiest. We are on the Silver Spirit, which carries 680 passengers and 420 crew. Last night at dinner we sat out at the pizza restaurant, which looks down onto the pool deck and the grill. We were surprised at how few people were about. This morning at breakfast we were marvelling at how quiet it was – maybe everyone was sleeping in?

Apparently, not so much. Instead of 680 passengers there are 200. We are outnumbered 2 to 1 by the crew. SilverSea is known for its service, but it is truly attentive now! Wilf is referring to this as the ghost ship. No trouble getting restaurant reservations. Want a lounge chair by the pool? Have two. By the end of two weeks we are going to know everyone!

All by himself

I found Wilf this afternoon in sole possession of the whole back deck lounge.

Our first port in Vietnam has been cancelled by the Vietnamese. Don’t know if that is a portent of things to come. But so far we have quiet seas and sunshine, a beautiful ship and lots of peace and quiet.

Tap tap. Is this thing still on?

Greetings, beloveds. Last I left you we were in Windy Wellington, NZ. And then – whoosh – a year has passed. Our next adventure begins soon, but I wanted to check and see if I still remember how to do this.

I’ll be back soon, but until then here is a picture of the sort of thing we are planning to escape.

Making sure we have an escape route

That was last month, and it didn’t last long. But still! Not supposed to happen here!

Wellington – on the Wild Side?

We’ve had lots of fun in Wellington, and I’ll tell you about the city itself later. Today I want to talk about two experiences with the more natural side of the city.

Europeans have been here for quite awhile. As we wander about the city we see brass lines in the payment indicating the shoreline of the city in 1840. Needless to say those markers are a long way from the current water line. There have been many earthquakes over the years – a really big one in 1850 something hurled the seabed up several metres, ensuring that the reclamation of land would get seriously underway.

And the earthquakes keep coming. As we walked around the city we saw what appeared to be perfectly serviceable buildings closed off and boarded up due to the quake in December 2016. Biggest casualty there was the Wellington Municipal Hall – a grand historical building that is going to need a huge retrofit. The discussion in the news papers about the cost of those repairs sounded awfully familiar to those of us who have lived through the Blue Bridge story in Victoria.

Anyhoo, back in the day the city was growing and more water was needed. One of the valleys behind the city was dammed, creating a reservoir. A second dam expanded the water for the city. All was good and the site made a lovely visiting spot ‘away’ from the city. Modern geology eventually noted that the reservoir complex sits, literally, on top of the major fault that runs through the city. Oops! Fortunately no seismic event happened to cause the dams to fail and inundate the community below. But alternate arrangements were made for the municipal water. Twenty years ago a group decided that this water shed should be protected, and they got to it. First up, a very serious fence to keep the unwanted critters out and the wanted ones in.

Every one who has come to New Zealand seems to have brought, either by accident or on purpose, critters. Which has caused all kinds of havoc to the native flora and fauna. (And by the way – WTF? What possessed someone to bring raccoons? Don’t know if they are still an issue but we saw them on a list of imported pests.)

The organization that started this project had a long descriptive name – the such and such preservation organization….. They eventually re-branded themselves as Zealandia. It is a remarkable place. They say that they figure that they have a 500 year project to return the valley to pre-contact conditions. And they are twenty years in.

I mentioned the fence. They can keep possums and rats and domestic animals out. And they can keep some of the animals in. But birds can come and go, and they could drop a pest in over the fence, so eternal vigilance is required. And there is a lot of work to on the vegetation – we could se that they have a Scotch broom problem like we do on the coast.

Say hello to a Takahe and her chick. Or his chick. Being a large tasty flightless bird usually means the introduction of non native predators is pretty hard on the population. They are doing well at Zealandia.

Next up – a form of parrot called a Kaka.

These ones have no problem sorting out how the feeding station works.

And then the Tui.

Complete with little white tufts on their chests.

You’ll notice that they are being fed. The Zealandia people are trying to keep them in the sanctuary, where they are safe from predation. The bird populations in Zealandia is increasing. The Kakas and Tuis are making their way out into the city and establishing small populations.If they don’t have to deal with cats.

There is also a population of Tuataras, which are reptiles, but not lizards. They are a very old species that has been around since the days of the dinosaurs.

When they are born they have a vestigial third eye in their forehead, which eventually goes away. Wonder what that was for?

Of course, being Wellington, even up in the hills it was windy. Wilf had a bit of a fight getting across the dam

Our second nature adventure was the Botanic Garden, situated above the city. A short cable car ride from downtown.

So much to see – so many beautiful trees! But what really caught my attention was a stunning collection of hydrangeas. Sorry Auckland. Wellington won on this one!


New Zealand’s National Museum is in Wellington. It is called Te Papa, which translates from the Maori as ‘Treasure Box’. It is quite a facility. To our amazement admission is free, which was a good thing because there was just too much to take in during one visit.

There is an exhibit of China’s Terracotta warriors currently happening, hence these dudes in the fore plaza:

A few of them were at the street market last night:

There are many wonderful exhibits in the museum, including a magnificent telling of the history of the Maori people, with truly wonderful carvings, totems and buildings. No pictures there though.

There was also an exhibit about the New Zealand experience at Gallipoli.

I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It was really shattering. The exhibit focussed on the story of a few New Zealand individuals to tell the story of the ANZAC forces at Gallipoli. It is an immersive and interactive exhibit, and even though story has often been told this drove home again the sheer bloody awfulness of the campaign and the courage of the men and women who lived and died there.

A few days after that visit we walked up to see the National War Memorial. The Art Deco carillon tower is visible from much of the city. The tower was completed in 1932, and the Hall of Memories finished in 1964. In 2015 he surrounding area was reworked and dedicated as the National War Memorial Park.

It is a lovely, solemn place.

In the new park in front of the monument memorials are being erected to mark relationships with New Zealand’s military partners. This is the United Kingdom Memorial, with a representation of intertwined oak and Pohutukawa trees.

There is also a Turkish monument, proving, I guess, that even after the horrors of a battle like Gallipoli there can be a way forward to healing and even friendship between former combatants.

Times for a train ride

It is time to move on from Auckland. We decided for this trip that we would not try to see the whole country in one go, and that we would confine our explorations to the North Island. Next stop – Wellington.

We could have flown, but chose the Northern Explorer train instead. It was a very pleasant journey. Since it is a special scenic train (kind of like the Rocky Mountaineer back home) the train has fewer seats and bigger windows – the better to skim along in comfort and admire the scenery.

Yes, that is the largest group of senior travellers that we have seen since we got here!

We passed through areas we had seen on our tour, then moved further south, crossing big bridges and a spiral tunnel system to manage elevation gains.

The train left Auckland at 7:45 and we arrived in Wellington at 6:30. A very pleasant way to go.

And now – onward to explore Windy Welly!

Up up and then some more up

Auckland sits on top of a selection of dormant volcanoes. Some are more obvious, some are little hills. The highest point is the Mt Eden domain. That area was up behind where we were staying in the suburb of Newmarket so we thought we’d give it a go.

Up turned out to be the operative word!

Our first stop was the Mt Eden botanical garden on the flank of the volcano. A shortish ramble through a well established neighbourhood brought us to the entrance. Once upon a time this was a quarry that supplied building rock for the city. Unlike the limestone quarry of the Butchart Garden back home this was all volcanic rock.

The bromeliad garden was full of all kinds of new to us species. And tucked up under the big trees was an abundance of hydrangeas.

We whiled away some hours and then decided it was time to move on. The docents told us that because we were on foot we didn’t have to go all the way around to the other side to access the summit. Back down the street we came up on, over one and we could get there from there.

Big trees in this neighbourhood. This one was growing on a wall built sometime in the 1920’s.

Big tree – I’ll back up a bit.

Hmm. Maybe if I stand in the road…

Once at the top of the road we were confronted with this:

At this point we were kind of wishing that we had figured Uber out. Up at the top of the stairs there’s a guy in an orange shirt. After he passed us several times I asked – he was doing 20 sets. Ugh. So, up we went.

A beautiful view over Auckland and across to Rangitoto. This wide meadow is not the summit, so we continue on up.

This is what we have come to see (in addition to the view) – the crater of the volcano.

There are signs asking people to keep out. Frankly I don’t know how you’d get back up – it is deeper and steeper than it looks.

Then begins the process of finding our way back down.

Over a stile and down through the forest.

This time the steps lead down.

And finally, at the end of it all, ordering a well earned beer at Brother’s Brewing – a different location then the one with the giant chicken wings.

Underground again

Our last tour day in included a visit to the glow worm caves at Waitomo. I hadn’t thought too much about what that meant, exactly. And sometimes not having any pre-conceived ideas leads to great surprises.

The rock in this area is limestone, and it has been carved away by water over the millennia, leaving a system of caves. First up – down a long flight of stairs:

The glow worms were not what I thought. In the utter darkness we realized that the ceiling was covered in tiny dots of blue lights. The worms are the larval form of a fly – they live in the dark, above water. Each worm spins down a silk like thread. When another bug stumbles into the filament the worm reels up its dinner. Eventually they spin a cocoon, emerge as a fly, mate and die. All in the dark.

Truly, nature is full of wonders.

Needless to say pictures of the glow worms are just a field of black. They’re not that bright! Or should I say brightly lit.

See, not super helpful. A few tiny dots…

There was low lighting throughout, so we could see to dine our way, especially once our eyes adjusted. From time to time the guide would turn off the lights so we could experience the dark, and the glow. She also demonstrated the magnesium lights used in the pre-electric days.

Being a limestone cave there are both stalactites and stalagmites.

Before we headed back to the bus we stopped for a spot of kawakawa tea, made from one of the local shrubs. They have the cutest little tea house at the top of the very long stairs back up from the cave.

Just up the road was a bird sanctuary, where we stopped to see the national bird, the kiwi. Kiwis are nocturnal, so our viewing was under very low light conditions. But we did see a pair. Here’s a statue to give you an idea of what they are like.

Like a stone, skipping across the water.

Our north island adventure continued with some time in King Country. Settlers came late to this area, and not without conflict with the Maori. The land here was not easy and early access was via rivers, followed by train.

First, we did a little river exploration with something new to me – jet boating. Our captain was very skilled with the boat and we flew across the water.

It was like being a stone skipping across the water. Now, the river is full of rocks and rapids and shallow, but Cap’n Al knows that river and we wove back and forth.

All relaxed and happy in the sunshine. Every so often Al would really rev things up and send us spinning across the water in donuts. No time for pictures, then! Just hang on tight!

Part two of the day was about railroads. It took 32 years to build the rail line in this area, supporting both agriculture and coal mining. Tunnels and bridges – lots of them – had to be built. But – time passed and the line was eventually decommissioned. A local entrepreneur saw golf carts from America, thought of the rail line and voila!

We spent an entertaining afternoon riding the rails in a gas powered golf cart. Liv was in charge of things – the steering wheel is purely for show, but she did need to manage our speed. Hot, dry day so no need to worry about slipping, but we don’t want to follow too close.

Some of the tunnels were short – one was almost a kilometre long. All were a nice break from the heat.

The landscape reminds me a bit of parts of Montana, but sort of scrunched up. Lots of sheep in all those nooks and crannies!