Friday, 26 February 2010

I wish it could be Christmas every day...

Well in Hanoi it is! Or at least it appeared that way as we taxied our way into the city centre under drizzly grey autumnal skies, fresh off the plane and still rocking shorts and t-shirts. Shop fronts sparkled with decorations, hotel lobbies sported green plastic Christmas Trees and Santa's peered from the rear windows of cars. It was mid January. We were a little confused. Our taxi driver had no idea where he was going and couldn't speak a word of English and pointing to the map in the guide book only seemed to confound him further, but he nodded and made positive noises anyway. I'm pretty sure we could have shown him a map of Bolton and he would have done the same, but we were getting a free impromptu tour of Hanoi and frankly we weren't complaining. In fact neither of us could stop smiling as we passed street upon street amazing looking food stalls, women in conical hats carrying yokes piled high with fruit and vegetables and old men sipping steaming tea on street corners.

After four months of amazing travel in India everything looked brand new; different faces, different architecture, different smells and sounds and we were excited. Eventually we found our hotel, and in fairness to the driver it wasn't easy - hidden down and alleyway with no sign and sandwiched between a hairdressers and a moped repair shop. I'll tell you this though, ten bucks gets you a lot in Vietnam, the room was a palace compared to what we'd been used to for the last several months, "We've got a DVD player! Check the beds out - silk throws! We've got a fully loaded fridge! The shower has got proper water pressure! Amazing!" The young Vietnamese guy stood in the door way with our bags must have been wondering whether the weird hyperactive English girl usually carried out inventory on every hotel room she stayed in. I asked him "whats with all the Christmas decoration still up?" "We like them" was the response. As good as answer as any I suppose...

As I'm sure you've worked out now, food is a pretty central theme to the blog (and drinking, yes...) and Hanoi was looking good. You know things are going to be interesting when you've got a woman with huge pot of black snails cooking away outside the front door of your hotel. Now, don't get me wrong, we loved the food in India, it is hugely addictive, incredibly tasty and always different wherever you go, but the Vietnamese take cooking seriously. Indian street food is good, but once you've suffered a few bouts of Delhi Belly and spent several days on the pot wondering whether it was battered thing with the black sludgy dal in the bus park in Jaipur, or the vegetable pakora cooked in possible week old oil on the high street in Bikaner, you get a wee bit wary. Never once did this happen in Hanoi. I'm sure once you get out into the burbs there are plenty of dodgy establishments, but the food in the city always looked and smelled fantastic. As the advice goes, if its busy, and its being cooked in large amounts (usually by a grumpy woman who looks like she means business) then you're pretty much ok. This seemed to be the case for most of Hanoi's numerous street food stalls.

The way things seemed to work is that each stall will specialise in something different; maybe a particular noodle dish, soup, kebab, salad or even just one type of seafood, like our sea snail lady next to the hotel. This means dinner is basically picking what you want then finding the stall that does it. If you want a salad to start then you can, and you then can follow it up with some shellfish at another stall two streets down. It's literally like having a huge market to walk round containing all the things you want to eat and someone there to cook them all in the best way possible. Grab yourself one of the playschool plastic chairs made for mini people that the locals perch on and some 30p beer and away you go!

Just before we came away I had a two day blow out and gastro-bender with my brother for his 30th birthday, which I would be missing. As some of you probably know Tom's a pretty decent amateur chef and and to say he likes his food is an understatement (a 1.3 kilo T-Bone steak eaten in Rome is still the Personal Best as far as I know, the sick man...). We picked one restaurant each; I chose St John  in Smithfield, Tom went for Bocca di Lupo in Soho . Over the course of of 24 hours we ate and drank as well as two blokes can. Between us we devoured Roasted Marrow Bone with Parsley, Ox Heart, Sweetbreads with Fennel and Bacon, Radish, Celeriac and Pecorino Salad with Truffles, Lardo di Colonnata with Walnuts, Tuscan Blood sausage with fava beans and Foccacia with lung and spleen simmered in lard and smoked ricotta. We even ate a full English breakfast in a greasy spoon in between which I'm mildy appalled at myself with. So, I was on the phone within the first day of arriving for the wind up... "mate you have got to see some of the food here!" listing a smorgasbord of grub "Ive already eaten two dinners today! You would love it - literally the best shellfish I've ever seen and loads of mad shit Ive never seen before, its as cheap as it gets too". I got the impression it was mild torture for Tom at the other end. "I'm so happy for you. It's pissing it down here and now you've made me want to get lunch" Sorry bro.

While we're on the subject, the coffee is worth mentioning too. It's outstanding. Our first cup of the local stuff was in a tiny doorway shop where an old guy who looked like Mr Miagi still weighs out the beans with lead weights on vintage brass scales. It's got a incredibly distinctive taste - slightly nutty and chocolaty, very strong and thick and it rips your head off. After a proper cup of Roman Espresso its about the best cup of coffee I've ever had. We later discovered that's its just as good iced and mixed with sweet condensed milk too, which in the ninety degree heat of the South goes down a hell of lot better than the hot stuff.

Anyway, it was good to be back in a city where there was so much to eat and drink for the first time, and the three days we planned on staying quickly turned into a week. Just so we're clear and you don't think we're a pair of chunkers we did actually do some cultural excursions (see pics for evidence) other than hang around street stalls stuffing our faces, although admittedly that was a considerable part of it. There actually aren't a huge amount of specific sites to see in Hanoi, but if you're happy just to wander and take it in then its perfect - the Old Quarter is hugely atmospheric and an absolute hive of activity (based mainly around cooking or eating unsurprisingly) and its fascinating to get lost in - provided you don't get taken out by one of the millions of mopeds that seem to be hell-bent on driving into you.

We had a couple of really good nights out too; the Saturday night market is superb and rammed with locals and there are some good bars also including a decent smoky Jazz club which we hit one rainy night (naturally). There were some pretty talented local musicians belting out some of the old classics and an excellent guest sax player who got up and went a bit crazy - the locals seemed to love it though and we got summoned over to a table full of extremely drunk office workers who seemed to want to toast themselves and us every ten seconds and drink themselves into total oblivion while sliding steadily off their chairs. Very funny to watch...

It's probably fair to say no other nation that conjures up a more vivid set of images in the global psyche than Vietnam. For many the name itself still represents a conflict more than a country - it was really interesting to start to separate the modern reality from the history lessons. Later on we'd see more of the ravages of the wars Vietnam had been subject to, but for now it was enough to be spending time in a beautiful, sophisticated Eastern city drinking in a whole new set of experiences.

View our pics here:


Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Planet Rock

You'll be pleased to know this is only a short blog, not one of the usual mega-essays, and the last from our four months in India...

Hampi, in the state of Karnataka was our final destination before we left for Vietnam and kind of an addendum to original plans, but it really turned out to be one of the most fascinating places we'd been and it's worth a mention in its own right.

People almost always say when talking about thier travels "the pictures don't do it justice", and while that's undoubtedly a truism here, you can probably get a fair idea from the pics we snapped as to why were so blown away by it - it really is quite unlike anywhere else you're ever likely to visit. Just in terms of the bizarreness of its geological makeup alone, its visual impact is huge. Vast mountains of house-size red boulders sit stacked upon each other as far as the eye can see - almost like piles of pebbles by placed there by giant hands. Lone ones balance impossibly on the tops of hills silhouetted against the blue sky. A winding river flows though the valley floor filled with men on coracles and lush green paddy fields surrounded by palm trees reflect the images of the mountains. Somewhere, an lone eagle screams high over head...OK - I'm taking the piss now but you get the picture. It's easy to see why this place was, and still is viewed as holy land, and there are temples and shrines every where to testify. It really does feel at times like you're on the set of an Indiana Jones film, although in the eternal tradition of fact being weirder than fiction its hard to imagine anything but nature being able to bring to life somewhere so fascinating.

The main town itself is bisected by the wide meandering river with the bulk of it on the South side and the quieter more traveler-friendly area on the North. We stayed on the North bank which is only reachable by boat across the river and even then it seemed only until six pm when you would then have to grab someone with a coracle to get you across. It never failed to entertain how there could be only three people waiting for the boat and literally as it arrived another twenty Indians would appear and pile on in front, usually with half a ton of bananas and pineapples to boot.

We ended up spending five days in Hampi, a few of which we spent exploring the incredible temple complexes and landscape. We climbed the five hundred and fifty odd steps to the top of the mountain where the Temple of Hannuman (the Monkey God) looks over the valley and we watched the sun set over one of the most incredible views in India (which is more difficult than you'd imagine when you've got two red faced monkeys going at it like Pamela and Tommy Lee next to you).

We'd landed on our feet with the hotel too where we had a cottage which looked right across the paddy fields, so we took in a couple of final afternoons of kicking back Indian style before we hit the road for our longest journey yet - a mega ten hours by bus to Mangalore, fifteen hours by train to Cochin, five hour flight to Kuala Lumpur with six hours in the airport before connecting to Hanoi. Still, on the way we got chased in traffic in a rickshaw for three miles by a crazed dog after some takeaway pizza, I got thrown out of a chemist (best not to ask) and accidentally George Bush-style insulted a man with no legs (best not to ask again), got into a seat war with a weirdo from Hospet who insisted that he wanted to sit next to Sam for the entire bus journey and got my photo taken with Ronald MacDonald. At least it wasn't dull!

View our pics here:


Wednesday, 10 February 2010

The View from the Afternoon

Back in 1994 the hugely influential (later to be huge sell-out), proto-superstar DJ Paul Oakenfold returned from a trip to India, ranting and quite literally raving about the burgeoning trance scene in Goa. Fusing the ferral, dark psychadelic sound with more club friendly productions he went on to mix what was considered (arguably) to be the best Essential Mix ever to be broadcast on Radio One, and in the process denonated the Goa Trance sound in Europe.

Psy-trance, as it eventually came to be known, was relatively short lived as a mainstream club pheonomenon, but the spiritual, otherworldly production values that gave the music its haunting edge lived on through Progressive House which went on to dominate the global dance scene into the next millenium. Whether this means Paul Oakenfold is single handedly responsible for unleashing the appalling crimes on fashion that were orange trance-utility-trousers, and the rest of the flouro-related clobber that followed remains to be debated. EIther way, Goa is still indelibly linked with the image of wild beach parties soundtracked by booming trance, dreadlocked hippies in tie-dye, and acid sunrises. So having never made it over back in the day, I was looking forward to seeing whether this was still actually still the case - whether the Goa of public imagination still existed, or whether time, and popularity as a holiday destination had changed all that...

From chatting to friends before we arrived it pretty much seemed that there were two sides to Goa. Advice seemed to be "South Goa is chill out, North Goa is Party time". So, heading up from Kerala we hit the South first for a bit of R&R before the Christmas binge in the North, and on the advice of Goa stalwarts Matt and Lucy, made our way to Pallolem Beach.

Arriving an hour before sunrise it looked spectacular. A stunning, empty, tropical stretch of golden sand lined with cocohuts and flanked by a rocky bay. As it was three weeks before the main season kicked off it was still pretty quiet, and we spent a week being about as lazy as two people can be, lounging in hammocks, drinking cocktails before lunch and generally soaking up the sun. It was pretty hard to pull ourselves away when time to move on came around, but we had people to meet and a family holiday to invade!

Now I like to think that over the course of the last few months we'd been pretty good as far as "keeping it cultural" and holding down the partying goes (we both agreed that we did enough of that at home), and we were feeling in pretty good shape. However, all that was about to go shit - amazing how meeting up with some familiar faces from home turf can unleash the bad habits (admitedly it doesnt take much), but lets just say on the first day we met up with Jen and Smiffy in Calingute in North Goa, an entire case of large Kingfisher, two bottles of wine and a bottle of rum "disapeared" mysteriously by the pool in one afteroon...

Calingute is the overdeveloped commercial beach resort town where holiday makers flock every year for cheap bars and pubs, loud music and boozy afternoons on the beach, and what a beach it is...I've honestly never seen one so busy in my life. Rammed from top to bottom it looks pretty much like vintage Benidorm (with cows of course) and was loaded with the requisite Lobster-Red Europeans in floppy hats chain smoking and knocking back the premium strength lager. You know its going to be interesting when you hear "Who the fuck is Alice" coming from a bar in the first ten mintutes. Not really my type of thing, but when in Rome, eat chips.

Anyway, Jen and Smiffy had kindly sorted us a smart and unfeasably cheap apartment with pool on the quiet end of town and the next two weeks kind of turned into a family holiday within a holiday, with all the added entertainment that kids deliver. "Mum I'm not eating this, its weird, have they got fish fingers?", "Mum Dillon's locked him self out of the room again", "Mum Rhys shot me in the head with an elastic band" etc. But to be frank, we all know blokes don't ever really grow up and there can't be many better ways to spend afternoons than enjoying ice cream/cold beers on the beach, going crabbing in rock-pools and fishing with telescopic rods and spinners. Admittedly, although Smiffy had bought two rods for the kids, they didn't get much chance to use them due to our extensive, erm, "demonstrating classes".

Being the build up to Christmas too there was clearly some sort of competetion going on with a few of the Northern ex-pat Brits who lived in the apartment complex we were staying in. Every day after returning from the beach more flashing tat seemed to have appeared on two of the balconies, reaching the point where you could probably have seen them from space. Powercuts are a pretty much daily affair in India, but I'm sure the ones in our block were down to the massive electrical drain caused by 9 thousand fairy lights, 4 giant flashing stars and several luminous Santas going full pelt 12 hours a day.

Nights were spent mainly down on the beach eating and drinking at the numerous beach shacks which battled to see who could play the loudest six year old Electro House records (How many versions of Robin S's Show me Love are there?) and we did pull a few allnighters which ended up resulting in some messy mornings on Vagator Beach (see picture of Smiffy and angry cow in photos for good example). We hired a few mopeds, went to the markets, took a boat out to do some proper sea fishing and saw dolphins, got invited to an ex-pat OAP Bingo party and generally avoided being sober. Christmas day turned out pretty good too. Paragliding, Barbequed fish and curry! Smiffy somehow managed to eat six different dinners at six bars which was quite impressive, but I think he may have suffered internal hemoraging by the look of him next day.

So with internal organs still barely functioning we said our goodbyes to the Oxford Massive and hit the road again having finally got in contact with Leicester peeps Matt, Lucy and Jonnie who'd been on a mammoth road trip through Maharashtra on the trusty Enfield Bullets (real men drive 50cc mopeds though). They were heading down to Palolem for New Years Eve and we were more than happy to return after our week there in early December. Pretty much everyone had doubled thier rates in North Goa (thanks overspending Russians!), and frankly judging by the increasing daily torrent of new holiday makers arriving for the festivities it looked like Calingute and Bagga could turn into one of Dantes Circles of hell in a few days. By the time we'd arrived down at Palolem again even the tranquil bay we'd seen just a few weeks ago was now busy, so we took a beach hut at the quiet Patnem beach a few Kilometres down the road, which turned out to be a good choice - we stayed in beach shack with some great people, talked total rubbish over afternoon beers and on NYE had a bonfire and BBQ on the beach before heading over to meet Lu and Matt on Palolem. Wading through the unbelievably packed full moon high tide beach we only just made it for midnight celebrations in the most disorganised bar on earth. We didnt stay long (the booze was running dry rapidly) and headed off to Agonda beach for long and entertaining night of partying. We finally made it home sometime around 11am the next morning. Happy New Year!

It was great to catch up with the guys...and we'd finally started to see what all the fuss about Goa was. Maybe we were missing something, but the North just didnt do it for us, the South however, is beautiful and we'd definately go back. It's easy to see why you could end up getting stuck there, and we found ourselves staying at Patnem for another several days before we moved on to Hampi in Karnataka which we'd heard so much about.

As far as whether the fabled psychadelic Goa of 90's still existed - it's hard to say; mainly because we never actually made it a proper party (getting old?). We did consider heading to the "Russian Progressive House and Minimal Night" for about 5 seconds but then decided against it - meat heads in Lime Banana hammocks doth not make a good party.

Without doubt, opinion is "It's not what it used to be" (isn't it always...). The rules regulating the shutting off of soundsystems before midnight don't help either and judging by the average age of the grizzled Trance Monsters at Anjuna market, it's unlikely that there is going to be any massive underground resurgence as the area continues to commercialise. But, Goa definately does have a certain magic and is clearly still a very special place for a lot of people. I still hold Paul Oakenfold responsible for those Orange Trance Trousers though...

View our pics here:

Goa Part 1

Goa Part 2