Saturday, January 27, 2007

Home Again

Well, it is actually a week or so since I arrived home to a grey, cold and wet Dunedin. People have been quite impressed in the effect that my holiday has had on me - saying it has taken ten years off me, that there is a new spring in my step and that I've lost weight (although there were those who thought I might return stick-thin as a result of some dread illness or other). And, yes, I have returned feeling relaxed and ready to embrace another year.


In all, I spent a week in and around Hanoi - sleeping till noon most days, and then exploring in a modest way. Most of my time was in and around the backpacker district, Hoan Kiem (a.k.a The Old Quarter) - a maze of narrow streets occupied by a bewildering assortment of traders, with masses of motorbikes and pedestrians fighting for space. It came as no surprise to read in the Vietnam News that there are a lot of vehicle on pedestrian accidents: what was surprising was that I neither saw nor suffered an accident. It was only on my last full day, when I was looking for a Singaporean restaurant I read about, that I found a part of Hanoi that I think I would have been far more comfortable staying in. It had wide streets, lots of very nice looking restaurants (aimed at middle-class Vietnamese) and was a lot more peaceful.

Never mind: at least by staying where I did, I had a date, of sorts. Once thing I had noticed was that all the people who come up and started talking were men or kids, no women. This changed as I was wandering along the lakeside, on my way to the Vietnamese movie I mentioned in the last post. This woman came up alongside me, and just started talking, saying it was her 29th birthday. As I wandered, she wandered with me, all the way to the cinema. Since I had time to kill, and couldn't really just wander off to the internet cafe, we had a beer. Somehow, my asking if she liked watching movies was translated into an invitation to watch the movie with me. There was still more time to kill, so my companion decided she'd eat. It was very cool to see her enjoy the movie as much as I did, although I think the Q & A with the director afterwards pretty much sent her off to sleep. As we returned to my hotel after the movie, I was beginning to get anxious, as to what might be in her mind, but luckily she just shook my hand and wandered off.

The other cool thing I did in Hanoi was to go watch the water puppets - a traditional form of theatre that has been a part of Vietnamese culture since around the 11th century. All sorts of scenes were played out, with fishermen catching fish, farmers tending their crops or herds, dragons (fireworks substituted for dragon breath) - I was having real trouble working out any sort of story line. When I looked at the programme afterwards, I saw why - the idea was basically to give a survey of life in Vietnam.

My last meal in Hanoi was in a French restaurant, a slightly posh place in an old colonial building opposite my hotel. I had actually made plans with myself to eat at the Sofitel Metropole, which was reputed to have the finest French restaurant in the country, but I felt weird about spending $30 on a main course for just me, which I think was itself a bit strange.

Since I had a lot of time to kill between having to check out of my hotel and check in time at the airport, I decided not to bother with taxis and just take a public bus. Despite being something like four hours early for check in, I still managed to be one of the last to board my plane, thanks to the shambolic way that Tiger Air check in was operating.


I had around 48 hours in Singapore on the way back, which was useful: it confirmed my initial impression that Singapore is a great place. In fact, while I was there, I did a bit of checking up on the National University of Singapore, to see if it might prove to be a suitable place to spend some sabbatical time.

This time round, I was staying in the Geylang area - reputed to be the redlight district, but it was pretty tame. I think I was only propositioned twice. The good thing about this part of town is that there are a lot of restaurants which stay open around the clock - although their food prices were a bit of a shock after the rest of SE Asia (and, indeed, the foodcourts). Since I was on the home stretch, I decided I'd do some serious shopping, not that I wanted anything in particular, so I spent my time in the various malls on Orchard Road. I have to make special mention of Carrefour: I had bought quite a few books and some clothes and it was getting to be a bit of a mare lugging it all around, so I bought a bag to make things easier. It had been knocked down to a mere $7, but when I got to the checkout, it rung up at a higher price. Here, they might well just hope you didn't notice and charge that, but in Carrefour they obviously take such errors seriously. They went beyond charging me the right price, by giving me a $5 gift voucher to apologise. Now that is good customer service.

Unlike what Tiger Air provided. They're a non-allocated seat airline, so as soon as the gate was announced, there was a free-for-all to be first in line. What Tiger didn't say was their schedule meant that the plane we would fly on wouldn't actually arrive until after we were supposed to depart. And so, we all rushed to get in line, and then we stood there in line for more than an hour. Ah well, that's the cost of flying on a budget airline.


When I was in Darwin in November, it was still the dry season, so Darwin was a bit dusty and drab looking. By the time I returned, however, the wet season was in full swing, and the place was looking fantastic. It is a city with a LOT of trees - flying in and then driving around in various buses, it was at times hard to detect the buildings, as the trees had taken over. I'd say it is not just the rain but also the heat which contributes to this, making it like a greenhouse.

Thanks to this heat and the plane being late, I found that the hostel room I had booked was pretty much unnecessary - there was no way I could sleep. So, instead, I lined up at the cafe in the bus station as soon as it opened at 5:30 and had an enormous breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon, while I chattered away to a fellow I met there, a retired Chemistry Professor from Wisconson - he and I crossed paths several times during the day.

I actually had a mission to undertake while in Darwin - I wanted to check out portable DVD players, and so had to take a bus trip to Harveys, several miles south of town. Sitting on the bus stop to come back, I got talking to a local fellow; of course, the weather came up for discussion. He thought it was a particularly long time since it had rained - all of four days! He was right, however, in saying it was due to rain again. I was waiting for another bus when it started - luckily I was under a verandah, but the rain came down so heavily that even traversing the small space between the edge of the verandah and the bus was enough to see me soaked. It made it a fantastic trip up to the shopping mall - there was already so much water puddled that it was splashing right over the top of the bus.

I spent my last hours in Darwin first in going to the Northern Territory library and hanging out there for a couple of hours, then having a good pub meal with a couple of beers and then watching The Holiday. Cool movie - I'd seen lots of shorts for it, so had picked up the story line about the Cameron Diaz character trying to escape men for a while by going to Cate Winslett's little village in Devon, but finding a fellow there anyway (who has two unbelievably cute daughters). But there was a whole other storyline involving Cate Winslett in LA: she befriends her neighbour, who is a prominent screenwriter: he hooks her up with a host of movies from the golden age of cinema. I think that those who made this movie are taking a shot at recreating that age. Winslett also meets Jack Black: they're both in really crappy relationships with people who're just using them (this was laid on a bit thick) but, of course, by movie's end the scales have dropped.


I managed a couple of days in Brisbane while I waited for my flight back to Dunedin: my fourth visit, and I think that every time I've been, I've liked it more. Sydney and Melbourne vie with each other to be the best city, but in some ways Brisbane has the best of each. Having the river run through it makes it very special, and then using that river as a central feature of its public transport network is inspired.

My first day was a bit of a write off - I arrived at 7 in the morning, my second night of no sleep, but couldn't check in to the hostel until after lunch. To fill in time, I randomly picked a destination on the train line and found myself in Shorncliff - a very tidy beachside suburb, where the houses were predominantly older but immaculately maintained.
The only commercial activity I spotted was a takeaway bar, and an Italian cafe. Apparently, way back in the day, they used to run train excursions here from Ipswich.

Once in the hostel, I slept until 8, then went for a wander around the New Farm/Newstead area, the sort of place I'd live if I was a Brisbanite - lots of apartments (including some magnificent conversions of the old woolstores), bars, cafes and at least one coffee roaster (Caffeine - I came her for breakfast the next day, and it was good). Around the river, in the West End, I found a heap more cafes, two decent bookstores, an alternative movie rental place and, most interesting, a shop that had more than 120 different beers in stock.

And so, the very last night of my holiday was spent in Brisbane: a friend has recently moved here from Dunedin; he and I had a very pleasant dinner at the Himalayan cafe, he dropped me off at the far end of the CityCat run so I could have a final blat up the river.

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Blogger owens valley tomatohead said...

Oooh, the suspense of reading about your date in Hanoi! Sounded like a fun evening.

Thanks for all your posts from and about the road.

Sorry that the NZ summer is seemingly nonexistent.

8:53 AM  
Anonymous harvestbird said...

Welcome back! I have much enjoyed following your travels via your posts, especially the anecdotes about Laos, the country, among your destinations, about which I knew the least.

10:35 AM  
Blogger Barry said...

Cheers - I was beginning to wonder if I was talking to myself!

7:28 PM  

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