Love Cocktails, Love Ho Chi Minh City

Maybe not the ‘Get this guys, I’ve got a really good slogan to promote us in the international arena’, Mr Head of Marketing at the Vietnamese Tourist Department pitched, to sell this dynamic and truly exciting developing city – however for me – this metropolis is ripe for Cocktail sipping.

And before I launch into my Why I have such a soft spot for Ho Chi Minh City speech, please be aware your drink of choice need not be alcoholic – so please, I repeat, please… do not rip up your plane tickets in despair dear teetotaller, simply spoil yourself with Cocktail’s closest cousin, Mocktail and you’ll experience a similar high…I think.

So, desperate to do right, our small band of travellers, took advice from a former resident of this fabulous city prior to touch down. And what super counsel it was.

As a result we set up sticks at the Majestic Hotel, a glorious establishment providing rooms, beverages, food, pool…I could go on…made instantly better at check-in, by the pleasurable words of Fleur (a sensational Head of House), informing us kindly that we had been ‘upgraded to a suite at no additional expense’.

Hoorah – our room, sorry, rooms – think the kind of place you need an intercom for – forced a quick delay on the sight-seeing front, whilst we fired up the Jacuzzi and filled the camera with evidence of our sensational rise in status.

Having to fight the desire to stay at camp – we headed out to make some really tough decisions.

  • Firstly, where are we going to have a sunset drink? Should we try our hotel, the Sheraton or the Rex?
  • Secondly, where are we going to eat? And this was actually more tricky, as pretty much everywhere you have options. Excellent options. From simple street food through to top-end dining – even a German Beer Hall.

Decisions made, meal consumed and our post dinner walk round lead us to, the roof top terrace of the Rex Hotel.

I don’t think I’ve ever smiled so much in my life. Furnished with an Irish Banana (an interesting mix of Baileys, Banana liqueur, and some other stuff – beautifully decorated with a half banana, finished with a strawberry either side), I reclined comfortably to soak in the entertainment.

However, I didn’t relax too long. The song was too catchy. My body begged to sit up. It was mesmerizing.  For 5 metres in front me, was a Vietnamese Tom Jones, providing the packed terrace with a spell-bounding version of Delilah.

It’s been 2.5 weeks since and I am still having flashbacks. Not nasty, ‘please don’t make me do it again’ flashbacks, rather sweet moments of reflection and vocal appreciation. It wasn’t just the Rex Hotel and the younger South-East Asian Tom Jones; it was Fleur; it was the friendly coconut salesman who helped us cross a busy road; it was the Teppanyaki chef who dared to let my 12 year old throw a salt shaker in his direction; it was the propaganda poster museum/shop we went to; it was the smiles you easily obtain from a passing local; and it was the kind welcome we received from the main branch of the ANZ Bank when we went to collect my husband’s debit card.

Ho Chi Minh City is such a great place – where unexpected and astounding things happen.

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Threads of Silk and Gold

Ornamental Textiles from Meiji Japan

@ The Ashmolean Museum, closing 27 January 2013

Whilst pretending to supervise my son’s prep last Friday evening, (read – surfing the Internet for inspiration), I happily discovered a clear contender for our proceeding Saturday morning’s family activity.  It was breast-stroking in bonus points.

Specifically as:

  • we could access it even under the harshness of our current wintry conditions
  • it was not sold out
  • it had Japan in the title, thus the most junior of our clan would be enticed
  • the Ashmolean has a great café downstairs and super restaurant upstairs
  • I could use this as an excuse not to clean
  • And by far its biggest appeal, it would exhibit ‘spectacular ornamental’ works which were experiencing their first tour and audience outside of Kyoto.

So, off we ventured to the oldest museum in the UK.

The exhibition itself is small, comprising of two separate rooms, though this provides sufficient capacity – without fear of overload – for the flawless, embroidered, fine art works on display.

Chatting with my husband over lunch today, we both agreed that Number 42: A pair of dyed cut velvet hanging scrolls depicting a leaping carp and a fisherman on a pier, took poll position in most impressive and exquisitely produced piece. The colours are muted, as they are in a majority of the pieces in the collection, however this only works to the advantage of the artwork – for the scene detailed is strangely made clearer, more precise and delicate as a result.

In keeping with everyday’s a school day, I came away more knowledgeable , then before I entered.  For I discovered that this ‘famous period of Japonisme’, closely associated with the Aesthetic Movement, which was happily explored in the drawing rooms of the growing middle classes across Europe (including Britain) during the late Victorian period, had such a great influence on European Impressionist painters at that time, particularly in reference to their themes and styles.

Apparently part of its appeal was its affordability, as ‘fine paintings and sculpture remained too expensive for many’, so ‘textiles and other decorative arts were’ seen as ‘relatively accessible’, which kind of surprised me as I can never get my head quite around the concept of what was inexpensive then and what I can achieve with my IKEA budget these days.

Other pieces of note, particularly as they provide a more diverse catalogue of the show:

  • Item Number 1: A Sample board of gold threads – (1886)
    Which gave home to 24 different shades of gold, which surprisingly are very unique in their goldness
  • Item Number 9: An embroidered panel (late 1800s to early 1900s)
    Depicting ducks by a river bank
    Not necessarily my idea of a must have design for my front room – however, the craftsmanship is worth showing off
  • Item Number 10: A pair of embroidered panels
    With particular regard to the flowers, for not only do they call out to be caressed, they are warm, plush and ‘serene’ in their sensory appeal
  • Item Number 36: Embroidered panel (1890) depicting a lady reading
    The ‘ahhh’ sounded by a fellow exhibition attendee sums it up. It’s very distinct and its use of a ‘deliberately’ limited colour palette, predominately oranges, really seals its position in my cerebral cortex
  • Item Number 28:  Embroidered hanging (1890s to early 1900s)
    View of Kiyomizu Temple Kyoto
    It’s so sedate and relaxing

With the exhibit browsing complete – it’s time for SHOP. A simple and very satisfying way to extend your cultural experience.

Hence – 25 minutes later, we headed back to the bus stop armed with a bag full of pleasures. Not only are we ready for next Christmas with a stash of half priced cards, we also purchased a copy of  The Soul of the Orient – A CD of tranquil Japanese Music (an ideal way to recreate SPA ambience in your very own, tiny, mid terrace, Victorian kitchen); however most excitedly, and who would have thought you could buy this at your local museum – a cold-soba bamboo and lacquer dish (the kind I’ve searched high and low for for ages) – perfect.

Temple Delight

Written 27 December (fiddled with 17 January2013)

Never one to be particularly moved or touched when visiting big monuments, I found myself positively punched in the face as we took a corner, mid-morning and my eyes met Angkor Wat for the first time.  She’s formidable.

I’m pretty convinced in fact, that the word awesome was actually created to express the breath-taking scene you receive for your $20 USD (daily pass – entrance fee to ALL temples).

The smile inside me burst immediately out and I think I may have experienced my very first real crush, or was it a moment of serenity…

Not that I’m a frantic, crazy lady or anything – rather – this place was easy, I was at peace, everything was just good– similar to having a bowl of porridge with figs, banana, a little desiccated coconut and maybe a little too much maple syrup…when you aren’t in a hurry.

So I dawdled around…really pleased…soaking in the beautifully preserved carvings, the monks on their I-Phones, the immense size of the place and the warmth (yes it was warm). It was indeed awesome.

Post a feast of Fish Amok, Vegetarian Spring Roll, a can of Miranda (it’s a green, delicious, refreshing, potentially toxic, highly addictive, creaming soda) and half a bottle of Angkor Beer – in air-conditioned comfort – we headed off to Banteay Kdei…another temple destination. Conveniently located, near the restaurant and delightfully soundscaped by a chap selling ‘violins-come-flutes’, whom quite admirably achieved the first 8 bars of Le Bumba, on repeat, for the 45 minutes of our walk-through.

Following a refuelling swim, we headed to Temple Number Three – however by no means a number 3 – really just another example of fantastic. This time, Ta Prohm, the temple that nature claimed back.

Between you and me, I wasn’t expecting much, perhaps an over-rated tourist trap. I’d been blown away by Angkor Wat – could this really deliver?

I was so wrong.  Very wrong. Initially, I was a little concerned for there were some people, however once you enter, you don’t really notice them.  You’re too busy being impressed. It’s like the Olympics for Tree Gymnasts.  These trees are really talented…and determined. And the photographs you can sentence your husband to take, for your own enjoyment…Top Shelf.

Accompanied by cicadas that make the trees sound like they a singing (a little screechily), this place…sorry…the whole temple World Heritage Site…is so crowd pleasing and so incredibly satisfying.

And though I obviously don’t need to sell it – if you go, you’ll be in receipt of additional bonuses every step you take across Cambodia, for this place is full of the most helpful, smiley people you are ever likely to encounter.

Beijing Coma – A Novel

Ma Jian

Here’s something that might shock.

I tend to select my reading material based on the picture or detail on the book cover and this approach, though astonishing – works. Think Atonement, Blind Assassin, If nobody speaks of remarkable things, Small Island and The Little Friend to name but a handful of super reads. So, I was somewhat surprised with myself when I grabbed my husband (it was a Date), and headed down to Blackwell’s back in April last year, to listen to a panel discuss Chinese Literature with the distributors, real authors and translators.

Star struck as usual – for these people are published– I listened carefully and left 1.5 hours later, arms laden with my latest purchases – all chosen (mark my words) by topic, rather than the prettiness of the dustcover.

Fast forward to late August and I started to read Ma Jian’s, Beijing Coma.

A masterfully produced description of normal day life, aspirations and events, narrated by Dai Wei, a student whom was involved in the united protest which lead to the massacre of hundreds at Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989.

Unlike your usual narrator, Dai Wei is in a coma, and at least to me, this is not the conventional way of seeing, reflecting, showing and telling a story…nevertheless this proves to be an ideal ‘vehicle’ for the reader to recognise and experience so many emotions, such as an shock, anger, injustice, sympathy and hope in a really effective and absorbing manner.

I shan’t lie to you…I found this a really tough read. It’s harsh and the tale told is not an easy one to digest, rather an incredibly important and powerful telling of Chinese history – shared on a very personal level.

And more truths. It took me around four months to complete, as I could only manage approx. 5 pages per day, as it’s not light reading – instead it’s literature that stays with you. You aren’t protected and swaddled kindly by the author, he gives it all – for instance, the challenges faced emotionally, socially and financially by a parent of a ‘dissident’; the horrors experienced by so many during and after the Cultural Revolution; and the stupid waste of precious life and talent that has occurred in my lifetime.

It’s hard going and thoroughly recommended.

And finally, the translator – Flora Drew – deserves very special mention.  For she has not only introduced me (and other readers of English) to a truly remarkable writer, she has done so without diminishing the impact of what’s being said.

Far Eastern Tales

W.Somerset Maugham

In keeping with the holiday theme (the one that I have unfortunately recently returned from), I thought it advisable to take on a little light reading around the topic, hence picking up a copy of Vintage Maugham from my husband’s well-planned, travelling material.

Far Eastern Tales is a selection of short stories guaranteed to add something to those hours in transit; times when you realise Vietnam Airlines doesn’t always place an eating tray in front of you; or…even when not touring around Indochina, and you’re just interested in a quick, enjoyable page turner which fits nicely in a 15cm x 22cm sized pocket.

Mr W.Somerset Maugham kindly delivers ten compositions which always seemed to finish, not in the way I’d first suspected. And his characters, especially the women, come across as thoroughly modern and decisive in their actions, which I found remarkable, particularly as this was written in or around 1920s…I think…however Wikipedia hasn’t be able to collaborate my time estimation.

Whilst reading you can sense on so many different levels, the environment of the action. Either on board a ship deep in the Indian Ocean too far from land to be of any assistance to Mr Gallagher; or walking blindly through the jungle; or even having to share a confined space with a man who always has something to say.

Additionally, as I tend to be a firm admirer of ‘character’ above all else, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was ‘plot’ that drove me on and claimed my affections.

So, I thought I’d briefly compile a list of my favourite tales from the Tales, amusingly though I’ve managed to pretty much list all, bar three…ohh well I guess that says something in itself, so here goes.

  • Footprints in the Jungle
  • The Door of Opportunity
  • The Buried Talent
  • Before the Party
  • Mr Know-All
  • Neil MacAdam
  • The Force of Circumstance

And, if you pick up the 2000 publication you’ll benefit from the added bonus of a pretty tasteful book cover to boot. Enjoy!

SPARKLE CUPCAKERY – Sydney

132 Foveaux Street
Surry Hills

Not only essential information for the first time traveller to the ‘sunny’ shores of Sydney, though equally, for the resident who’s currently not in the know.

This groovy little venue deserves special mention and a descending upon.

Why? You ask
Simply…these fist sized, delicious yummies should be prescribed.

They are soft, fluffy, topped with heavenly icing, are sophisticated enough for a dinner party and/or ideal for mid-morning AND mid-afternoon mouth happiness making.

You can even dine in on your selection, sharing it with an enjoyable, caffeinated beverage (like I did – though I’m sure you could go for a de-caffeinated or other as you like), which is served up on some particularly attractive crockery.

Owner – Kathryn Sutton, has excelled. She provides her customers with ambrosial fulfilment which can be beautifully packaged for later, or consumed moments post your choosing – in an environment which is alluring in both detail and design.

Further great news – if you can’t make it to the flagship Surry Hills store, thankfully these little beauties are also available at:

  • David Jones, Market St Food Hall, Sydney
  • Sparkle Cupcakery and Luxe Espresso Kiosk, Martin Place
    (between Elizabeth St & Castlereagh St)
  • online….yipee     http://www.sparklecupcakery.com.au/
  • Alternatively…you could choose to purchase
    Sparkle Cupcakes – The Little Black Book
    and create these mini masterpieces yourself

The Trip from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh – 29 December

Some key things I’ve learnt about travelling by car across Cambodia:

  • An ability to horn drive is mandatory
  • Agility and experience with your stirring wheel is essential to meet the ever present need to surf elegantly past pot holes
  • You must accept that the driving experience is not too dissimilar to taking on a principal role in an early eighties computer game
  • Dare yourself occasionally to watch the road ahead as your chauffeur enjoys exceeding the speed limit on the wrong side of the road, whilst taking on the nerves and pluck of the driver of the truck closing in on you – it will only intensify your relief and pleasure on arriving at your selected destination
  • The view from your air-conditioned chariot is so worth making the decision not to fly feel great, for the landscape is expansive and peppered with
    • palm trees
    • exquisitely simple, wooden stilted housing
    • miles and miles of paddy fields – either water-logged, encountering harvest, or having a rest
    • motorcyclists carrying an abundance of cargo – from slightly too many family members, through to home furnishings, to several post-living livestock of the pork variety
    • and waving, smiley people

And finally…the road from Siem Reap for the first two hours is like Heaven, the remaining three hours – Hell.