Vietnam, a week in the middle

We depart from Singapore’s Changi Terminal 4 for the first time. What an impressive terminal, spacious and airy with 6 moving sculptures with computer controlled programs and their movement set to music.  The departure level has dedicated areas where one can doze on couches with the light dimmed.  Those airports that seem to think we should not be able to lie down and sleep while in transit and design seating accordingly should take note. 

Changi Terminal 4 sculptures
Adult seating Terminal 4 Changi

Our flight Vietnam Airlines was uneventful but we did notice that during the usual announcements that three times they mentioned that any passenger opening an aeroplane door would be subject to a 20,000,000 Dong fine. Something that only happens in Vietnam?

A clever feature of our arrival at Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport in Ho Chi Min City is the issuing of stickers to passengers connecting to a domestic flight which allows ground staff to help direct you to the baggage drop off, which is not obvious, and then onwards to the nearby domestic terminal. While waiting to board our flight we notice that each gate has one or more “gate change” whiteboards.  Their use becomes apparent as one is used to advise us our departure gate has changed from 15 to 8.  At our arrival at gate 8 there they are writing on another board that the flight from gate 8 has moved to gate 7!

Our destination is Da Nang, where we are spending a week in the region visiting both Huế and Hội An to see the historic sights that each has to offer. It seems a little strange as we head to our hotel by taxi to be surrounded by two wheeled vehicles and not be riding on one. We had decided that we were not in motorcycle riding mode. Without our usual protective gear and in a more relaxed frame of mind, we would stick to four wheels.

The last few years have seen regular reports on the progress of developing software and hardware   for driverless vehicles.  It stuck me in both Da Nang and Hué as I watched traffic merging seamlessly on roundabouts without priority or incident and the myriad of directions that mopeds, motorcycles, cars and other vehicles come from that perhaps the software developers could learn a thing or two here.  Having said that with 14,000 deaths on the road and over half on motorcycles, there is probably quite a way to go before we see full automation on the roads.

We are surprised at the number of Christmas decorations we have seen and shops playing Christmas Carols both in Da Nang and Hué.  They are not here for us westerners, but seem to be be for local middle class and popular with children based on the number of small Santa suits we see. Not what we expected.

Locals out to see the Christmas lights and decorations in Hué
Christmas deliveries via Amazon Prime?
The three wise men at Christmas

The “Renunciation Express” a term used for trains that travel between Ho Chi Min City and Hanoi are referred to is our transport from Da Nang to Hué. While the distance is less than 100km by road the train takes some three and a half hours to make its way along the coast northwards to our destination.  What a feat of engineering: we cross gorges with water pouring down towards the beaches below, dive into tunnels as the track snakes along the lush green covered steep sided hills that seem to just rise up from the sea. The track turns so tightly I cannot see the front of the train most of the time.

En route to Hue

We also learn something new at the start of the train journey apart from the stirring music played for our departure, do not fill an esky (cooler box) with locally made rice wine and then try to load it onto the overhead rack without enough assistance because when it falls off, it does leak. Luckily not over us!  Use bottles next time.

Hué was the capital of Vietnam from 1802 to 1945 and home of the 19th-century Đại Nội Citadel, another UNESCO world heritage site and contains the Vietnamese Imperial Palace and another “forbidden city” along the lines of that in Beijing. Wonderful to wander through what was once the centre of power in Vietnam without huge crowds of tourists. While the Imperial Palace fell into disrepair after the abdication of the Emperor in August 1945 who vacated the palace, much of the interior was destroyed by fighting in 1947 and 1968.  Restoration been undertaken since UNESCO listing in 1993.

Main Đại Nội Citadel entrance, Hué
Part of the Imperial Palace Hué.
Detail of the Imperial Palace Hué
Foundations of buildings destroyed inside the Imperial Palace Hué

We also travelled into the countryside from Hué to visit the covered Thanh Toan bridge in Thuy Thanh Commune.  Made of wood with a tile roof it was built in the mid 1700’s and it is unusual in that it was funded by the wife of a local Mandarin for the benefit of the local people crossing the river. 

Wooden construction Thanh Toan Bridge
Good place for a rest, Thanh Toan Bridge

One aspect of Vietnam we enjoyed last time was the food.  We found then as now a wide variety of tasty options and that the price range between regular and  top quality is not as pronounced as in other countries. Do take advantage of the opportunity to dine well as we did.

Dinner comes with own extractor fan

To get from Huế and Hội An we book a car to take us via Lập An lagoon, with its mountain backdrop, Hai Van Pass, a spectacular road highlighted in one of the “Top Gear” episodes, Marble Mountain and then on to Mỹ Sơn an old 4th-14th century ruined Hindu temple complex. Quite a day of exploration with our car replaced by an 18 seater minibus for two of us. The tour company did offer us a 50% discount on the price, but we would have preferred the car for taking photos while driving.

Fishing boats in Lập An lagoon
Local women collecting shellfish by hand in Lập An lagoon
Looking north from the top of Hai Van pass
The two of us on Hai van pass
Perhaps we can remodel the entry to accommodate this statue, Marble Mountain.
one of over 70 temples at Mỹ Sơn
Part of Group D buildings, Mỹ Sơn temple complex
Countryside around Mỹ Sơn temple complex

Hội An once a thriving commercial and trading port has become a major tourist destination with offers of food, massage and bespoke tailoring called out as we walk around the town.  A little overwhelming for us who prefer the quiet life. A day and two nights would have been enough for us.

Lanterns on Bash Dang street, Hội An
Hoi An lanterns
Picturesque Hội An
Statue of Polish archaeologist and architect Kazimierz Kwiatkowski who worked for 16 years on the restoration and development of Hội An and Hue
Anne overlooking old wharfs in Hội An

While sitting in Anne’s favourite coffee shop, the Hội An Roastery, in Hội An she remarks that the old city of Hội An reminded her of Khiva in Uzbekistan with merchant shops below and storage or living space above.  It changes my view of Hội An, for I realise that what I have perceived a tourist hot spot full of shops selling clothing and souvenirs is probably little different from 200 years ago when Hội An was a busy port with merchants selling their wares to buyers. The only differences are that the goods now come by road rather than sea and the customers are primarily tourists, both domestic and foreign, rather than regional buyers from central Vietnam. It puts Hội An in a completely different light, and although not somewhere I would revisit, I am glad we have been here.

Japanese bridge at night, Hội An
Closing up shop using wooden slats. Hội An

Our last port of call is Hanoi for an overnight stop en route to Thailand.  Anne finds a great restaurant called Essence and we recognise places we visited when here in 2003. A little trip down memory lane.

Hanoi Opera

All in all a great week, the people, the food and the scenery.  All I can say is “ cảm ơn,” or “thank you” to all those people whose paths we crossed and made our time enjoyable.

– Anthony

Friends, Dali and Tapas in Madrid

And so, our family visits over until next year, we have begun our slow trip back to Australia.  First stop Madrid which I have skirted a few years back but never visited.  Luckily, after the UN Climate Change venue suddenly changed from Santiago, Chile to Madrid, I found an Ibis hotel centrally located and not too expensive and strangely, it turned out to be literally a few blocks from friends’ place.  A visit anywhere is always more enjoyable and interesting when you can catch up with friends and locals.

Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas opposite our hotel

COP25 water bottles handed out at Madrid underground

We hadn’t seen Jonathan (my old boss from the early 90’s) and Mercedes for many years but it felt just like old times, just continuing from where we left off.  Our first evening at one of their favourite local tapas and seafood restaurant was a fantastic start.  The next morning, Mercedes and I caught up to visit the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia – the entrance ticket I booked online for 10am was a little too early for Anthony so it was nice to have company and be able to discuss various artworks with Mercedes rather than going alone.  I feasted on the many Dalis and Picassos and other Spanish artists such as Miró.  The museum was fairly empty so it was wonderful to be able to linger in front of favourite paintings and enjoy the details, especially the Dalis.

Dali – The Enigma of Hitler

Close up of Dali’s – The Enigma of Hitler

A visit to Madrid would not be complete without visiting the Prado, Spain’s national art museum which holds the best collection of Spanish art and one of Europe’s finest collection of European art.  Like the Louvre, it is impossible to see everything in a single visit.  Anthony and I met after lunch and spent a few hours meandering through this massive museum, selecting the artists and periods of personal interest – otherwise, it is easy to become overwhelmed when presented with so many works.  

Here is my favourite one of the day by Dutch renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder:

Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Snowy Landscape with Skaters

Close up of Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Snowy Landscape with Skaters

Having spent my childhood in Saint-Quentin, in Picardie, northern France, I had to visit the grand monastery and palace which King Philip II of Spain ordered to be built to commemorate the 1557 Spanish victory at the battle of Saint-Quentin against King Henry II of France.  The Royal Seat of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, named after Saint Lawrence, the saint day of the deacon who was roasted on a gridiron for his religious beliefs, was built in the shape of a gridiron.  Scenes of the battle adorn ceilings around the monastery.  Pity I eventually found out photos were not allowed – the royal library is remarkable but sadly no photos allowed.

Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain

Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain

Battle of Saint-Quentin, El Escorial

Unsurprisingly, El Escorial and surroundings were declared a UNESCO heritage site in 1984.

Sunday 8th December, yes the blog is very late, saw us taking a lovely drive out into the countryside with Jonathan and Mercedes, lunch in a small village restaurant followed by a walk in the woods.  

With Jonathan and Mercedes

With Jonathan and Mercedes

It is funny how we can be creatures of habit:  the hotel recommended a local tapas bar just a couple of blocks down the road on our 2nd night – it was so good, we just had to return to on our last night.  The same locals standing in their favourite spot, our table by the window waiting for us, obviously, the waiters and waitresses welcoming us like regulars.  We have the roasted artichoke with Pedro Ximénez vinegar and crushed cashew nuts again, talk about our plans for the future.  The food and atmosphere are fantastic.  An elderly couple, one of them with a walking stick arrive, the place is now full, so I give up my seat.  Time for us to leave.  “See you tomorrow night” one of the locals called as we left.  I felt sad we couldn’t explain we wouldn’t be back.  But maybe I didn’t want to try and explain it because it felt good to feel like we belonged in a place…  It really is time for us to go home.

At our new local – La Tienta restaurant, Madrid

Our new local – La Tienta restaurant, Madrid

And so, quick as flash, our 3 days in Madrid were over.  So much more to see and do on a future visit.

Next stop, Singapore for a few days, to see our godsons and our friend Alicia.  It is funny how we have been to Singapore so many times, but always to visit friends.  One day we’ll stay longer and do some sight seeing.  This time, it rained heavily so staying indoors was the best place to be anyway.  Connor at 13 years of age is going through the typical teenage silent phase while at 11.5 Connor is still as affectionate as ever.  Precious times with them all, pity Michael was away on business.

With Ronan, Alicia and Connor

We leave most of our luggage at our hotel for our return in 3 weeks’ time.  Vietnam next.

– Anne

My mum’s 90th birthday

The main reason for our trip this year is now just a memory:  my mum’s 90th birthday celebration in York.  The event, which my sister and I organised, was over 12 months in the making and, from all acounts, a great success.  And a wonderful memory. 

Every one of my mum’s 5 grandchildren, together with their spouses and kids, made it to York, coming from France, Northern Ireland and various corners of England.  Our cousin came from Wales, great-cousins from Scotland and last but not least, my sister and brother-in-law came from Abu Dhabi.  While mum lives in Canterbury in Kent, York was chosen as it holds a special place in her heart, proud of her Yorkshire roots.

Although my mum agrees that she is seriously old now, I doubt it will change her habits much.  Can you believe that she still cycles everywhere, gives 2 to 3 hour guided tours of Canterbury cathedral, stands in the street collecting for various charity causes just to name a few regular activities.  And always up for a laugh:

Who would think the wearer of this fun jumper just turned 90?!

I have come to realise over the years that the most precious gifts one can give in life are time and memories.  Material things hold less and less value but time, and moments with loved ones, are so precious.  I am very happy we have spent these last few months in Europe, being able to say “see you next week” or even see you next month rather than see you next year.

The two sisters looking forward to The Event

My ever elegant sister, waiting for the first arrivals.

Pre-lunch drinks

Grandson #2, Matthew, reciting a limerick he wrote for his lola

We nearly forgot to take a group photo!

Evening at York Christmas markets

Getting together for mum’s 90th birthday was so much fun and precious.  Thank you for the memories, thank you for the fun times, thank you for you M’my.  

To my sister, as we say in good English, we done good!

Time to make our slow way back to Australia now…

– Anne

George Cross Recipient

Malta I believe is the only country to have ever been awarded a medal for valour, the George Cross in April 1942, for the Maltese people’s fortitude during the repeated bombing attacks on the island during the Second World War in 1941 & 1942. As we approach the airport in high winds, the sea appears to me to be iced over, the white waves looking all the world as the white streaks one sees sometimes in river ice.  This is part two of my birthday treat and the 102nd country we have had the privilege of visiting.

Looks like ice to me, but it is white caps

We are whisked away from the airport by a skilful taxi driver who darts through the myriad of roundabouts in what we perceive to be a Maltese style of driving where those on and off the roundabout merge seamlessly regardless of who has priority. Another new driving style for us to contemplate.

Our first impression is that the island is constantly under a building construction assault, cranes abound and new buildings appear to rising everywhere, sometimes shoehorned between the existing more dilapidated structures. Building maintenance does not seem to be a high priority here, perhaps the buildings’ owners have an eye to the future, demolish and build bigger. Having spent part of the summer in the wide open spaces of Iceland, we feel hemmed in and a little claustrophobic.

Sandwiched in-between, note the first floor cables

As we approach our hotel, we are struck by the cables, I presume communications, not power that are draped from building to building around the first floor level. No nice internal plumbing here.

Enclosed balconies, Sliema, Malta

Our hotel, the Malta Hilton, a very luxurious location for my further birthday celebration, is situated in St Julian, situated just north of the capital Valetta, but close enough for us to walk and then catch a ferry from the suburb of Sliema into the city of Valletta. 

Dolphin door knocker in Sliema, Malta
Streets in Malta
How to avoid those pesky stairs when moving furniture

As we motor towards the imposing skyline of the city past a couple of multi masted sailing ships, I am struck by how this view would probably have changed little in hundreds of years. The imposing walls, fortifications and church towers greet us as we arrive in Valletta.  We wander the streets taking in the history and beauty that this city offers. Blue skies and sunshine make this a great change from the cold we have experienced as winter arrives further north.

Approaching Valletta from the water
The dome of St John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta
Looking down one of Valletta’s main streets
View over the Grand Harbour from the saluting platform, upper Baracca Gardens Valletta
The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist painted by Caravaggio in 1608
Sleeping Lady, a Neolithic masterpiece unearthed from the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum

There is such a scarcity of open space that we resort to walking along the coast towards the old firing ranges at Pembroke.  Here we find open space, plants and wildlife, plus the old warning signs about red flags and range in use.  Panoramic views to the sea are probably protected by old unexploded ordinance that keeps the developers at bay.  We do stay on the paths, no bundu-bashing here. We make our way to towards the Madliena Tower, one of many fortifications built along the coast.

Not many people walking on the old firing range
On our walk back, we stumble across another grand old abandoned building and immediately notice the Australian crest. After some research, Anne found out that the Australia Hall was a former entertainment hall built by the Australian Branch of the British Red Cross Society in 1915 as an entertainment hall for wounded soldiers. The building mysteriously burnt down in 1998 and was subsequently sold for one tenth of its value… Our uneasiness around property development practices here grows.

Australian Hall, Malta

To get a better picture of the country, we decide to take a hop-on hop-off bus trip around the northern part of the island seeing Balzan, Mdina, Mtarfa and Bugibba.  We spend most of our time in Mdina, a beautiful city with great views back towards Valletta.  There is not much free land anywhere on the island, either buildings or farmland.

The Mosta dome, third largest unsupported dome in the world
The City walls of Mdina
Inside Mdina
Two clocks different times to confuse the devil over the time of Mass.

I have always been interested in reading the local newspapers to get a feel for what are the issues that the press and perhaps the people have an interest in. 

Malta as been in the world news recently, before and after our visit, with an arrest in relation to the death in 2017 of Daphne Caruana Galizia who was assassinated by car bomb. She was an outspoken critic of both government, opposition politicians and those in authority. She raised her questions about accountability and transparency and what is referred to as the “culture of impunity” at the highest levels.  It appears that her blog and its revelations split the island’s population with many for and against her stand. Her death was met with condemnation from both the journalist community and bodies with the European Union concerned with some of the reported activities in Malta.

On our last day I am fortunate enough to discuss my thoughts and feelings about Malta with a local.  They acknowledge that there are some problems, perceived and real, around development and they concede that there can be what we might call “accomodations” to get things done, which does happen in various forms worldwide, but they explain to me that Malta as a country that has no natural resources, the government has had to focus on encouraging investment and business immigration, tourism and financial markets development to provide for its people’s health and education funding. 

They finished by saying that when they are sitting in a restaurant having lunch in one of the three cities looking out over the splendour of the Grand Harbour and Valletta that there is no finer place to live in the world. Who am I to judge such a place with such a scant knowledge of the issues.  Go and see for yourself and make your own decision.

– Anthony