Thursday, December 10, 2009


It’s 6:30am on a Friday morning. And Hanoi is alive. Vietnamese get up early, get up busy and stay busy. This city teems with life. There is always a crowd, always someone selling something, always a million motorbikes and trucks and buses and bicycles.

The first month this place felt suffocating. People stare at you (there aren’t any white people out where we live), it’s hard to walk on the footpath, for all the stalls that have been set up. It’s crowded. People are pushy, cut in, cut in front, and you have a sign on your forehead that says ‘RICH’, just by being white, so you’re always aware of where your wallet is.

But then you get a bit more comfortable. You get to know your way around the city more, understand a little of the people, why they do certain things, that they’re actually very polite in person, when they’re not queuing or trying to sell you something that is. Suffocating becomes something more like energy.

The food is fantastic. Not too crazy spicy, nothing too weird, if that’s what you want (although the bbq crickets are surprisingly ok). The dishes use a lot of fresh herbs, lime juice, and buckets of fish sauce. There are aisles of msg at the local supermarket. Chopsticks never leave your hands. My knife and fork techniques are definitely lacking now, judging by how many things I drop on tablecloths on the odd occasion I use them.

The street food, the literal translation being ‘dusty food’ is incredible. Among Hanoi’s claim to culinary fame, is Bun Cha, chunks of barbeque pork with a tangy soup, fresh greens and noodles; Pho Bo, a beef noodle soup, and Bun Bo, noodles with beef, peanuts, salad greens etc. Pho Cuon, fresh spring rolls, also deserve special mention, as close to my heart (and tummy). And you can have a hearty meal for around $1.20 NZ. If you feel like spending up on a meal ($4 or 5 should do) you can have delicious Indian banquet (go Foodshop 45), any other type of asian cuisine, or there are a variety of western cafes and restaurants.

However, there is no concept of ‘health and safety’. The traffic is insane. Yeah, there kinda is a system, something like ‘ebb and flow’. Lance has totally mastered Vietnamese traffic, and ducks and weaves now with the best of them and is very efficient at not making eye contact with the traffic police, and I must say we love our little motorbike – it’s gotta be one of the funner ways to get around. But there are also games of chicken being played out all over the place, sometimes with disastrous consequences, but surprisingly not as much as you’d think.

The electrical wiring would give an OSH inspector a fit. You have fans bursting into flames in restaurants and nobody really notices. Wires (presumably live?) hang down all over the place, and really anybody is an electrician. I watched a guy fiddling with power lines, just sitting on them (there are quite a few, so think hammock). Lance usually gets his hair cut on the street, and his barber just taps the razor directly into the above power lines. The same goes with building techniques. For the first six weeks we stayed in a guest house and had the pleasure of watching two houses be constructed before our eyes, brick cutters and all at 6am to 11pm. Dodgy doesn’t begin to describe it. Inventive perhaps.

So, to a lot of you out there, it’s possibly news that we are in Vietnam, and have been for the last three months. And, anticipating your next question, we have been living in Hanoi, doing volunteer work for various NGOs and a handicraft group Quilts and Art, who train and employee disabled Vietnamese youth. (my Vietnamese sign language is actually better than my Vietnamese, although perhaps this isn’t saying much, given that I only know my name, thank you etc… I am seriously linguistically challenged, and cannot, simply cannot get the hang of a tonal language).

We’ve been doing a variety of promotional projects, advertising materials, editing, website materials, photography and making video clips of the various projects. We’re currently working with YWAM – their development wing. It’s been really cool to witness first hand these really innovative projects which involve the locals in projects, equip and educate, and which the locals then take over and perpetuate as YWAM steps back out. Check out for more details, have a look at what they do from biogas projects, to cat and cow banks to early childhood education. If you’re interested in supporting a smaller group that have low overheads, and high impact in terms of local people having ownership and going on to perpetuate the projects, then we definitely recommend them. It’s also been priceless getting to meet and know the people who benefit, like working with some of the deaf Vietnamese and getting to know their stories. Having a face to put to a purpose makes all the difference.

We’ve also made some fantastic friends out here, and have been attending a very cool little church, which includes Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican etc services. Unfortunately, currently being in our last week at the moment, this is the sucky aspect of a three month stint.

Having been on the go for the preceding four months kinda sapped our interest in traveling around and about. So we haven’t done as much as we perhaps will wish we had. However, we have had some very cool day and weekend trips away, by ourselves and also to see a number of projects in action. These have included Mai Chau, for a relaxing weekend away…

Halong Bay (of course) … which needs no introduction…. I must say for those of you thinking of traveling here, Kangaroo CafĂ© did a very decent price for a gorgeous two day tour, staying in lovely rooms on the boat (best toilet I’ve had in Vietnam), good food, relaxing sun deck, everything covered…)

It’s been a crazy three months so far. Short term stints being what they are, particularly in third world countries, there are of course the frustrations of perhaps not quite the same concepts of efficiency, the websites they ask you to make, turn out to already exist, miscommunications, it takes time to get your work started and so on. There was also the three weeks of shingles, the serious lack of green spaces, and oh not being able to buy pants because everyone is size 0 and not even the mannequins can do their zippers up. But, all in all, its been an invaluable experience, getting to stretch your comfort zone, getting to know another culture more, seeing aid work, working well, first hand, doing some of the more random things you will ever do, and just generally learning to get over yourself. Would totally recommend it to anyone! Not quite sure what our next steps hold, so stay tuned… feeling quite virtuous however to finally have caught up to ourselves blogwise!


Our second week of Italy was a blur of relaxing at this gorgeous villa (which overlooks the famous towers of San Gimignano, which is also very affordable if anyone is interested in a cute little villa in Tuscany for a week or so), vino (no, not the direct cause of the blurring), good food, four wheel transport, visiting little hill top towns with as little energy as possible expended, and consuming copious amounts of gelato, pasta and good Italian coffee, thanks to our cute little two cup stovetop espresso maker which had made its way into our panniers and hearts.

Our patio...

Lance and I would have been happy to never peel ourselves up off the villa patio furniture and just enjoy the sun, view and vino. I must admit that my journal jottings stop here, and my memory gets a bit hazy. I do remember the overwhelming joy of a shower that didn’t require jandals, a queen size bed with sheets (!), and how convenient refrigerators are.

Our villa...

However, my parents, fresh out of NZ weren’t quite so easily pleased. So, we were regularly bundled off into their car to experience the joys of the surrounding villages. Oh the ecstasy of climbing hills without lifting a finger, or a foot as the case may be. Quite magical! Of course the downside is how quickly all that pasta and gelato quickly catches up with you in such a state of glorified laziness.

Of course there was San G, unique with its family towers. San G is quite charming. Although we tried to keep a low profile, with our infamosity and all (is that a word?).

We also stopped back in the yes, charming, hill top village of Cortona, made famous in the book 'A Year in Tuscany' - I think that's the name, I could just be making that up. And now also a not-quite-as-good-as-the-book-film.

Mum and I on the steps of the town plaza in Cortona...

We headed over to Siena to check out the famous plaza… along with a million other tourists with the same idea.

And of course there was Florence, a place which actually couldn’t possibly fit anymore culture, cathedrals or art galleries… and which was particularly lovely at night….and meaningful given that my grandfather who died when I was just a wee tot, lived here running an Officer’s club during the second world war.

We also went up to the lovely Cinque Terre, five little connecting seaside villages only accessible by foot or train. A place every self-respecting tourist to Italy makes their way to. The path that connects the villages is somewhat steep. When I say steep, I really mean steep, like heart attack material, to the point that they put ambulance phones along the way, despite it being in the middle of nowhere and you would have to be airlifted out.

We came back to San G via the leaning tower of Piza, cause hey we’re in Italy. As much as I thought this would be beyond clichĂ©, it was actually a lovely tower. And yes, we did the photos…

There was also the surprise hit of Volterra, yes, another hill top city. What can I say? Quaint, good gelato, narrow alleyways, sweet shops.

We actually did fit quite a lot in, in that one week…along with selling our bikes to an American student who had just moved to Florence, and whom had randomly struck up conversation with us the week before in Montepulciano.

One of my highlights was attending a Gregorian monk service (they're the chanters) - they chant seven times a day!

We finally left our lovely little villa and hit the road to experience the joys of the South. On route we traveled to Assisi, and stayed a night there. This little town was the home of its patron saint St. Francis of Assisi and is literally brimming with Nuns, Monks and religious knick knacks. Assisi is also known for hiding hundreds (thousands?) of Jews during the second world war, courtesy of its networks of Nunneries and Monasteries and the local people. I understand from the book ‘The Assisi Underground’ (compulsory reading for us all, thanks Dad!), that while the rest of Europe only managed to save 20% of its Jewish population, Italy, thanks to the bravery of the Church, saved 80%.

Dad, telling us all about Assisi....

It's hard to get a shot with just one...

We next hit the Amalfi Coast, known as the Italian Riveria. We went via Salerno, where Dad had the, ah, 'experience' of witnessing a vicious broken bottle fight between an elderly bag lady and some random lass who couldn’t resist provoking her for some unknown reason. Although Dad being Dad got to the bottom of it from a fellow witness. That’s all that really stood out about Salerno, that and the frantic rush to find accommodation and return our rental car on time, which we did, with all of about 1 minute 33 seconds to go (according to our GPS lady).

The bus ride into the Amalfi coast was quite the experience, the roads really were not designed with buses in mind, and the bus drivers are Italian. What more do I need to say? It was different to what I was expecting. The whole thing is perched precariously on steep, steep mountain sides that sweep dramatically down to the sea. It’s quite charming and colourful.

The view from our bnb... the truck in the lower right hand corner unloaded fireworks almost the entire time we were there - apparently there was going to be quite the display the following week!

We had a lovely bed and breakfast in Ravello, which is another ridiculously charming Italian village. It had the busy town plaza, copious numbers of cafes and galleries, and being perched halfway up the mountain, had this incredible 180 degree view of the coast. Another few hazy days of relaxing, vino, coffee and good Italian food passed by, along with exploring the nearby villages, via steep, steep rickety foot paths cut into the mountain side.

On our way down...

Jul, outside the pantheon, waiting for her folks who were, once again making friends with anybody and everybody...After much deliberation and observation we decided that no, the girl behind wasn't getting married today, although perhaps she had shortened her wedding dress... they say you can you know, I've just never actually seen it.

We eventually roused ourselves to make our way back up to Rome where we spent a few days exploring and getting to know our rather random hostel host, as you do. He was an intriguing Indian bloke, who kept giving us bottles of wine for some real or perceived failure of the hostel, even kindly giving us a free night for some inconvenience that I forget right now. Rome of course, is Rome, and is quite spectacular, for all the usual reasons. I must say that the best time to visit the Trevi fountain is definitely at night, that the Spanish steps are overrated and that Italy really does do food well. These are all sights that really need no introduction...

At the Vatican City, entrance to St. Peter's... not quite sure what they're trying to say...

From Italy we headed back to London to chill out for a week before our flights to Vietnam. Our wonderful friends Vix n Jan and Justine were uber gracious in putting us up, yet again. We haven't yet blogged on our ventures into the great motherland (two weeks before Holland), due to our photos being on our laptop, which is currently in Holland. We saw the sights of London (London Borough food markets being the most memorable mmmm), caught up with friends, headed up to the great metropolises of Birmingham and Manchester. We spent a week with Jo and Caleb Putt, touring the lovely Lake District, up to Scotland for some Haggis suppers, a quick visit with gran, a bit of William Wallace history, Edinburgh, and down through York and Whitby (which was our highlight by the way, famous for its fish n chips, James Cook connection and a great place to play pitch in putt, very appropriate given our companions). One day hopefully we'll get some photos up! I wouldn't hold your breath though.

Saying good bye to our faithful steads.... very sad!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Ciao Bella!

On the overnight ferry from Croatia to Italy we met a friendly American cycle tourist called Allan and hung out with him. He had a very cool ‘Bike Friday’, folding bike and trailer, definitely some bike envy going on as he showed us how he can fold it up and the trailer transforms into a suitcase for the bike, and it can go straight on the plane. No excess baggage charges = happy cycle tourists! Nightmare-esk memories of pulling my bike to pieces, getting a box and getting it on the plane were all too fresh in my mind from our US leg, and I was already contemplating what we were going to do with the bikes when we finished in 2 weeks time.

Bike Friday in the flesh...

Anyway, so we had this great idea of sleeping on the ferry (this was quite a big ferry, like Interislander x 1.5) and arriving fresh in Italy the next day. However the ferry was chocka full with people, and by the time we got up to the lounge area all the couches had been nabbed, all the seats and most of the floor space. We now understood why people were rushing to get on. So we found a quiet spot on the top open deck rolled out our thermarests and sleeping bags and tried to get some sleep. Sadly the developing storm put and end to that. As it turns out, it is quite hard to sleep on the top deck of a ferry in a storm with gale force winds, the lightning crashes getting closer and louder, and the spray from the waves breaking over on us. So we got up and made our way back inside to find a deserted-ish corridor to get some broken sleep in. Wish I got a photo of the top deck to show you what it was like, but in the wind that was so strong you had to lean into it to stay balanced, I really didn’t want to be fluffing round with a camera.

The food of course is a highlight. It’s Italy, what can I say. While Lance bemoaned the lack of domino’s thick crusts, I loved Italian pizza – the ingredients are so fresh and full of flavour. Of course Lance’s general motto around Italy was “culture schmulture”, so I don’t know why I’m surprised. However, after 3 weeks in Italy, it did begin to annoy me that the Italians are so into their food, that you can’t really find anything but Italian food. And as much as I love their food, I don’t like it that much, there is really only so much pasta and pizza one can handle.

mmmm cheese...

So we made it in one piece off the ferry at Ancona, and started the great trek west across Italy to San Gimingnano (forever, and affectionately known as San G now…. ) to meet Jul’s parents for a relaxed week in an Italian villa in Tuscany. My main memory of cycling in Italy are the hills. Admittedly we didn’t have a lot of route choice, and did our best to avoid them, but they were incessant. Together with the heat, 50 km felt like 100 kilometres. I began to even hate, truly hate, downhills, because it meant we would just have to reclimb that lost altitude. Tight, windy Italian roads, coupled with Italian drivers, don’t make for nice cycling either. The worst road we took of the whole trip was in Italy, when at one point we ended up (following the advice of a I’m sure, well meaning camp ground owner that the road would be nice and quiet) we ended up on some tight winding mountain road, which seemed to have every truck and car off the main highway from Rome that were crossing over east. It was bumper to bumper trucks flying by, most actually wider than the actual lane, naturally they had no concept of allowing room for cyclists. So many times I thought I was a goner, about to be sucked under a truck that was a whisker away. Not fun. Very, very glad when we got past that stretch.

Jul entering National Park... (the name of which evades us right now... it really was quite gorgeous)

So it took us about a week to ride from Ancona to San G. Our first stop was our first night (and last, much to Lance’s disappointment) stealth camping in a vineyard, in who knows where, somewhere near Corinaldo. Thanks to arriving in Italy on a Sunday, with everything consequently closed, we had no information about campgrounds, so we were cycling blind. Usually you can find one or two by helpfully placed signage, but we weren’t really on the usual tourist route. So we ended up in someone’s vineyard, where Jul had a terrible sleep, dreaming about the owners finding us all night, and in the morning swore she’d never do it again. Lance slept like a baby – go figure. It doesn’t help not being able to speak Italian, and given the popular image of Italians as a rather hot blooded race. Oh and did I mention this entire area has no trespassing signs posted for miles? That might have been the clincher. Perhaps they had had stealth camping epidemics. Literally every 50m for about 200km there were ‘no camping’ signs, (of course they were in Italian, so we can only presume from our rough translation attempt) Also for some reason Italy seems to have quite the dog barking epidemic. Many a good night’s sleep were interrupted by dogs barking all over the place.

Our stealth taken on the run

So we cycled via Corinaldo over to a surprise favorite Italian town ‘Gubbio’, a gorgeous medieval fortress town, that, best of all is off the tourist track. I’d never heard of it but it was a real Italian gem, an old medieval town, and to get to it we had to ride one of the best descents down a new snaking Italian road. Nothing like that new smooth tarmac and windy corners that you can really lean into, and more speed than you are brave enough to use. Lance’s highlight was the making of a fast and firm friendship with a homeless kitten at the top of the mountain pass before Gubbio, who must have been dumped up there. He named him ‘Mr Smoochy’, and after much petting, feeding of bread soaked in water, he finally had to let him go… but not before trying to put him in his panniers and take him down to Gubbio with us. While Mr Smoochy wasn’t so sure about that, he did throw himself down the highway after Lance, for quite a ways…. It was a dark time for Lance.

Mr Smoochy and Lance...

The run in to Gubbio


The campground at Gubbio....

Next up was Tuoro sul Trasiemo, on Lake Trasiemo. The overwhelming memory of this ride was the mammoth hill climb up and over a mountain pass, oh and that and losing lance (who had biked on ahead and stopped at the summit, and as I passed was obscured by some passing tourists….one hour later after much concern, and lance riding back down the mammoth mountain pass to see if I had crashed somewhere, he finally found me at the bottom of the other side… there was no way I was climbing back up to find him!)… I think the lake was lovely too.

We then went via Montepulciano, which is lovely as far as Italian hill top fortresses go, but the killer hill climb up to it (seriously – its so bad it has giant signs screaming out the gradient, warning no trucks to venture up etc) rendered the whole thing totally not worth it – not to mention they have thee most useless tourist information office). You can see a pattern emerging here… way too many hills. We did meet a really nice American couple who were also cycle touring, Jo and Julie, from Niceville, Florida. Lance drooled over their bikes (which also were very pimp and airline friendly thanks to the S&S coupling links.... am I the only one who has to box my bike the old fashioned way??) . I drooled over their Magnum PI poster they took with them everywhere to take photos with.... as you do.

The ever popular 'scooter-truck'

We then camped in Casciano, taking the most random, ½ lane dirt tracks to get there – which yes, were actually marked on our maps, but which made people’s driveways look like four lane highways. Casciano, as far as Italian towns go, is relatively inconsequential, but it did have a fantastic little campground on an organic farm (Il Casale) about 10 km out, 20 km thanks to the lack of signposting meaning we passed it, cycled on and had to survey literally about 6 people to work out where it was before turning back. Anyway, Il Casale has about 10 campsites, breakfast served in a lovely little dining room, a little terrace and joy of all joys, no mini discos. It also came with our own personal donkey and cat determined to get our dinner and food bag. They sort of tagged teamed each other, one moving in while the other was being shooed away – very annoying.

Great sign if you want the 500 route, not much use for anything else...

Jul... totally over it

Finally making it to lovely Il Casale (the town which we biked to and from in the )...
There ain't enough beer in this town for the two of us...

Finally making it to Tuscany...

We then made our way in a final push to San G. We got there a day early, oh so ready to get off those bikes (another mammoth hill climb into San G…. dam those hill top fortresses) and have a relaxing week catching up with Jul’s parents. Unfortunately there was a mix up in communications and we were supposed to be meeting them that day at the Villa. So while we relaxed at our campsite and chilled out, Jul’s parents were having visions of us dead on the side of the road when we didn’t turn up. Thankfully the villa’s owners were total angels and helped them through that rather dark night, calling the police (who were apparently very pro-active and helpful) and hospitals etc (yes, seriously!) – we were infamous all around San G) …. And we were tracked down in the morning at the campground, woken up to a rather distressed, sobbing mother – much to our total confusion!

The view of the towers of San G from our Villa...

Phew – that’s enough for now. Watch this space for Italy part two.