Wednesday, 23 June 2010

China girl

I arrived in China last Friday and fell in love with the country immediately.

A row of taxi drivers greet me as I exit customs. ‘Taxi?’ one of them enquires half heartedly. I shake my head. ‘But,’ I say, ‘I’m looking for a bank.’ I’ve arrived in China without a single yuan, as the banks in Vietnam won’t sell foreign currency.

I show the drivers my bank card and mime taking money from an ATM. They look bemused, take the card and turn it this way and that then shrug, shake their heads and speak among themselves.

‘Money,’ I say hopefully .
‘Aaaah,’ understanding dawns. One of the drivers nods, takes out his wallet and hands me 20Yuan – about £2 but plenty for a meal and a bus ticket here in China.
‘No, no.’ I hand him back the money. ‘Thank you, thank you.’

He takes it back reluctantly. It’s the first time in my life a taxi driver has offered me cash rather than trying to strip me of all of mine and is an act that immediately instils fondness for China in my heart.

In the end I wander the streets asking random strangers and eventually find the ATM and the bus station. Then there’s an 8 hour drive through mountains and tiny villages, leaving behind the rice paddies and driving into countryside that feels more like Italy or Greece. We motor along avenues lined by tall cypress trees, grapes grow on dusty hillsides, villages of sand coloured stone dot the landscape. Only the traditional curved roofs, prow-like against the setting sun, hint at the country we’re driving through.

My first stop is Kunming, a city of around 1million. I only stay one day, just long enough to buy a train ticket north but find it a charming city. The temperature is a cool 25. There are canals and small rivers that wind around the streets with benches and table sitting alongside. People of all ages sun themselves, play chequers, cards and majong or are vocal spectators, offering advice and cheering or groaning at the result. Two young men play the flute and the music floats on the summer breeze.

Families sit around restaurant tables, chopsticks clattering into bowls of exotic vegetable and meat dishes. The food here is amazing: cheaper than you can believe Р50p for a dish of vegetables or a plate of dumplings Рand really delicious. I eat Kungpo chicken (spicy with peanuts and peppers); steamed dumplings filled with pork; saut̩ed aubergines; spinach with garlic and drink light flavourful tea.

The next morning I catch a train, 9 hours to Dali. The hard seat is hard and the carriage is crowed. Eight of us squeeze into a space designed for six.

The train winds over mountains, through picturesque valleys and past ancient villages. The scenery looks like a film set from a Chinese epic; at any moment I expect horsemen to come charging over the hill firing arrows at us.

To pass the time I wander to the dining car. A chef cooks over a wok. The menu is in Mandarin so I point randomly. Out come shredded pork with carrots and chilli and a spicy noodle soup with spinach and mushrooms, a fried egg and more chilli. Sated I doze as best as I can. My bum goes numb and my legs hurt.

But then we arrive. The walled old town of Dali sits at the foot of the mountains and beside a long lake. The clouds hang low over the mountain peaks and I feel myself relax.

A two day stay turns into four, then five. I wake late, wander the streets of the town or hike up the mountain.

I slurp noodles in the market and eat dumplings for breakfast. I find a German bakery run by a woman from Munich where I eat cheesecake and drink coffee.

And along the way I rediscover my passion and enthusiasm for travel. China with its vastness, its exotic scents and tastes, its colourful people, reminds me of India. I wish I had more than the month I have to explore and enjoy it.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Time for goodbye

It's my last day in Vietnam and to be honest I'm pleased. It's been hot. It's been hectic. It's been hassley. And I'm ready to leave. Vietnam is the most beautiful south east Asian country I've visited but there's something missing. It's taken me until my last day to put my finger on what that is.

I'm in Sapa, a hillstation in the country's north west. It's cool here (at last, a day under 30C) and absolutely beautiful: terraced rice fields slope high up the towering green mountains, their tops dipped in cloud. Soft pearlescent fingers of mist curls around the balcony in the morning and I'm sleeping under a duvet at night (bliss after 8 weeks of airconditioning).

The people here are a mix of Vietnamese and local tribes - Hmong, Dzao and Tay among others. The tribal people still wear their traditional clothes and, along with farming rice, have embraced the tourism industry with enthusiasm. They come up to you in Sapa to sell their handicrafts and to chat. They sit beside you, they ask you questions, they show you their products, they smile. It's surprisingly pleasant; good fun even.

Today I take a short, 7mile, trek through the countryside to see their villages. I walk down the thin irrigation lanes that line the rice paddies, past muddy water buffalo, up steep hills, along river banks and beside cascading waterfalls.

The tribal women follow along, chatting with me, telling me about their lives and finding out about mine. They are warm, welcoming and very sweet. And this, I think, is what's been missing for me in the rest of Vietnam.

It's naive to think that people see tourists as anything but a walking ATM. These women are seriously good salespeople - I am now in possession of two bracelets, a bag and a purse that I really don't need and have no room for in my bag. But selling is only a part of the game. They are also interested, warm and funny. Ready to laugh at themselves and me.

One girl (on the right in the picture) asks me why I don't have children. I shrug, 'It wasn't meant to happen,' I offer as an explanation. She tells me about her family and proudly tells me of her daughter's first day at school. Just 26, she has an 8 year old son and 5 year old daughter. 'I was very young when I first had children,' she says. 'But now I know all about it and I'm not having any more! My mother had eight but two is enough.' She's laughing but I sense she means it.

When we say goodbye later in the afternoon she runs off and comes back with a gift for me, a handmade cushion cover. 'For you my friend,' she says, then hugs me very tight and wishes me well. I'm really touched.

In the rest of the country the voracious desire to rid me of every last penny has not been the slightest bit softened by any warmth or interaction. The sale is pursued, made (or not) and that's that. There is no culture of smiling, no culture of service and no effort made to disguise their motives and at times their contempt.

Naturally I've met lovely people along the way but they stand out in my memory as exceptions. Perhaps with the distance of time I'll come to think more warmly of the country but for now I'm moving forward. Tomorrow I'm off to China...

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Bia hoi in Hanoi

In Vietnam, beer is cheaper than water. A half pint of the local brew, bia hoi, will set you back the princely sum of 4000dong, that’s about 20cents. It’s no wonder that as the sun sets I invariably think to myself ‘maybe I’ll have a beer’.

Tonight is no exception. I’m wandering the streets of Hanoi’s old town, absorbing the atmosphere and building up a thirst. I spot a bia hoi cafe and, dodging the traffic, make my way over.

Bia hoi cafes are always roadside affairs. This one sits at the intersection of four streets in Hanoi’s old quarter, with chairs and tables that spill from the pavement right onto the busy streets. Customers are a mix of local men (and here in cosmopolitan Hanoi a few local women too) and westerners. As I approach everyone squeezes over a few centimetres and the proprietor, a plump grandmother, puts down another tiny chair for me.

It’s not that easy to get comfortable. The chairs are baby sized jelly red plastic and sit by a baby sized table (the chairs are maybe 20cm off the ground and no more than 30cm wide, the table is some 15cm or so high). This may work for local customers with their tiny baby sized butts but for a European sized girl like me it can be a bit of a challenge.

I squat down and squeeze in and start chatting to the guy on my left, an engineer from Canada called Tim who’s been living and working in the city for three months. When I arrive he is having a shoe polish. I look down at his feet, notice he’s wearing flip flops and laugh. He laughs too. ‘I thought I’d be safe wearing flip flops but as soon as they spot that they’re made of leather I’m a goner,’ he says. The first beer – the local brew is a light, refreshing pilsner that was originally introduced from the Czech Republic – is quickly gone and I order another.

A few minutes later a cobbler walks by and offers to re-sole my flip flops, which to be fair are on their last legs. I accept his offer and it’s Tim’s turn to laugh. The cobbler squats in front of us, fixing on new soles, filing the edges neat and sewing in the toe hold extra tight. It costs me $2.50; probably about the same as a new pair of flip flops but as I’ve developed a particular fondness for this pair I’m happy with the result.

Feet comfily encased in new flip flops, I order another beer. Three French guys wander by and decide to stop for a drink. They’re tall and one in particular is carrying some excess weight. I watch the arms of the plastic chair widen to embrace him and wonder at its strength as he lowers himself in. We chat and fend of hawkers of books, sunglasses, fans and donuts till their wives come by and collect them for dinner.

A crowd is gathering at the opposite corner. I can’t see what’s happening but within a few moments we hear sirens. Two fire engines roar into the intersection and scream to a halt. Firemen leap into action and disappear down the alley. The power to the square is suddenly cut. I sit in the soft half dark and order another beer.

An Australian family I met in Hoian last week wander by and pull up a stool for a chat. The landlady takes one look at the children, a six year old boy and four year old girl, both with big brown eyes and wavy dark hair and her maternal instincts kick in. We are unceremoniously moved out of the reach of the cooling fan. Two more chairs appear and she insists the children move off the road and under the fan. She teaches them the Vietnamese word for Grandma and is wreathed in smiles. She ignores her other customers, sometimes grumpily condescending to fill a glass with beer, until the kids and their parents move on.

I find myself talking with Tim about religion. It’s deep but not very meaningful and I quickly calculate how many beers I’ve had. Four? Five? Six? Time to eat. After all those beers I crave a curry and before we part company Tim gives me a lift on the back of his scooter to an Indian restaurant he knows nearby. I scoff a delicious biryani and then wander back to the hotel, floating along on my newly soled flip flops filled with beer and food and good cheer.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Nimh Binh

When I arrive in Ninh Binh my plans of lying on my hotel bed under the air conditioning with a book are scuppered by the fact that it’s the city’s half day of power. Virtually every town in Vietnam has its electricity cut for half a day every other day; here it won’t be restored till 8pm tonight.

I take a cold shower and go for a wander, in search for a cafe with a generator and air conditioning. It turns out to be a fruitless search but on the way I find a warren of leafy side streets with a small market. I eat a pineapple then squirm at the sight of a bucket of live eels being packaged up and bought and a stall holder picking out a fish from a bucket and cutting it up, with its gills still gaping open and shut.

The next morning I hire a moto and driver and head out to explore the countryside. We drive down county lanes that are no more than 6ft wide and through villages of grey brick homes, with front rooms open to the laneway. It is harvest time and families are threshing their rice crop, separating grain from chaff. The lanes of the villages are deep in damp chaff. A frangipani tree has shed its flowers and the heady tropical scent of the crushed petals mixed with wet rice stalks surrounds us as we drive over it. The rice grains are spread to dry on patios and on the hot bitumen of the road and the moto driver carefully avoids these.

The villages are peaceful places. Plump sand coloured puppies loll by the side of the lane, tongues out and soft eared goats look up from their grazing to stare at us suspiciously through amber eyes. Rangy chickens, their feathers looking half plucked, dance away from our wheels. We disturb a troupe of white ducks with yellow beaks who set off down the bank of the river at a jog. Their crotchety quacks follow us down the road. And all around us the mountains, blue grey in the morning light, offer a vast serene backdrop.

After half an hour or so we arrive at a temple that’s a 440 step climb up the hill. The sun chooses this moment to emerge from behind the clouds. It’s only 8.30am but within minutes the rice paddies are gently steaming and I, on my climb up the mountain, am wet through. Rivulets of sweat run down my back, my neck, my arms. My stomach is wet, my thighs damp.

The climb is worth it though. As I twist upwards I’m rewarded first with glimpses of the villages we’ve just passed through.

Then the karst mountains begin to emerge and soon I’m looking out across a deep green forest of hills, perched among winding rivers and a patchwork of lime green and lemon yellow rice fields.

Back on the moto we head through more villages. In one, a barber has set up a chair on the road, a mirror attached to the wall of a house. He’s giving his customer a neat trim on the back of his neck as we drive by, close enough to reach out and stroke is hair if we’d chosen to. An old woman on a bicycle pedals slowly by. She’s wearing a navy blue pyjama suit and an old conical straw hat that’s fixed to her head with a bright pink velvet ribbon.

Arriving at Tam Coc I hire a boat for the 6km row up river. There are two rowers on board: a woman in her late 50s who looks plump but is in fact compact and sturdy. With seemingly no effort she rows with one oar and steers the boat along. In the rear is a young man in his 20s with a round face and big soft eyes. He has two oars and is the power house of the boat.

We glide silently downstream, through limestone caves, beside rice fields and between the tall blue green hills. Occasionally we see other rowers – traders and hawkers mostly – but often the river is mirror still and the only sound is the plop and pull of our oars in the water.

When the rowers have tired arms they simply transfer the oars and proceed to row with their feet. It looks a little like riding a bicycle while lying down. The legs kick out in wide arcs, pushing the oars through the water. The rower controls their direction with his feet, using the arch of his foot to pull them through the water and then, toes opening wide, transferring the oars seamlessly to the side of his feet when he pulls them up and through the air.

I spend half the journey entranced by the skill and the flexibility of those feet. And riding back to the hotel later on, I realise I feel as satisfied and sated on the experiences of the day as if I had eaten a big meal.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Hard sleeper

I’m not at my best at 2am. Unlike some night owls, I’m not the kind of person who thrives on the dark, welcomes late nights and embraces the decadence of sleeplessness. I like early mornings, waking refreshed with a long night’s sleep behind me.

I'm tetchy when the alarm wakes me at 1am and I have to creep around the room, trying to dress and pack without waking the others in the dorm. I have a sleeper to catch, from Hue to Nimh Binh. It’s a 13 hour journey and the pleasure of rail travel is palling in the deep of the night.

The taxi ride is shorter than I expect and I’m at the station too early, I have 30 minutes to wait. Around me, locals are sleeping on the plastic seats, stretched out and snoring in what look like hugely uncomfortable positions. The heat is stifling. I rest my head on the top of my back pack and try to doze.

Another foreigner comes along, dragging a suitcase on wheels behind him. The rattle of it along the tiles wakes me up a little. He comes to sit beside me and we make half hearted small talk. He’s British, lives in Vietnam and is teaching conservation at the University in Hue.

There are long gaps in our conversation, as befits the time of night. He asks about my trip and when I tell him my plans he sighs, rubs his hand through his thinning hair and says, ‘I wanted to come that way when we moved out here but my wife didn’t want to.’

Oh, I say, well perhaps when you go back to the UK?
‘I don’t think so,’ he says. ‘My wife...’ his voice tails off.

There’s a complicated announcement in Vietnamese over the tannoy; I hear the word Hanoi but nothing else. Around us a few people start to gather belongings and move towards the platform. Others slumber on. I wonder out loud whether it might be my train.

The British professor says no. ‘That was the announcement for the local one,’ he says.

I congratulate him on his grasp of Vietnamese. ‘I spend a lot of time on the trains,’ he says, in a voice that suggests this is no good thing and not a decision made of choice.

Oh, I say. Why’s that?

‘My job’s in Hue but we live in Saigon.’

Don’t you like Hue, I ask?

‘Oh no, I love Hue, I’d really like to live here.’ He pauses and I know before he speaks what he’s going to say next. ‘My wife,’ he says, ‘has a job in Hanoi.’

I feel sorry for this unmet wife. She seems to be the receptacle for all his disappointments in life, a vessel he fills with his unmet dreams.

The air is heavy with heat. There are beads of sweat on my upper lip and around my hairline. My tshirt is damp. The train is running late. Eventually another announcement is made and everyone begins to move. The professor and I join them. We walk along the platform and I notice three railway workers fast asleep on the stone floor of a store room. They lie on their backs, arms flung out beside them. A light is burning bright above them, insects are gathered around it and moths flutter around the sleeping men.

The train pulls in. There’s no platform and we have to pull ourselves up, a metre or so, to the first step. A hard faced woman checks my ticket and leads me off; the professor disappears to his carriage.

For this leg of my journey I’ve had to take a hard sleeper as the soft sleepers were fully booked. Usually this simply means a six rather than four berth cabin. But in Vietnam it means exactly what it says.

When I pull myself up onto my bunk – the top of three, with not enough head room to sit – I discover it is very definitely hard, nothing more than a sheet of metal covered by a bamboo mat.

There’s a grubby blanket and a pillow that still bears the head mark of the person who slept there before me. As I settle in I can feel the previous occupant’s warmth still emanating from the blanket.

Squeamishly I pull out my own sheet, a silk sleeping bag, and throw it over the blanket and pillow. I toss and turn for 10 or 15 minutes, trying to find a comfortable position but in the end sleep wins and I drift off with the hum and shake of the rails beneath my head.

I sleep well enough to miss breakfast and wake at 9.30. The rest of the cabin has been up since 5am and their staccato vowel heavy Vietnamese has been filtering into my dreams along with the smell of rice porridge and chicken.

When I finally rouse myself from bed to look out the window I see that we have left the sea and sand of the south behind and in their place are the karst mountains that I’m travelling to Ninh Binh to see.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

On the road again

Thanks for all your comments and support after my last post...after my three days in bed, I’m feeling much better.

So I pack my bag, which is getting heavier by the day and now has a large lamp shade strapped to the side (it seemed like a good idea in the shop) and heft it on my shoulders. I’m on the move again. And, as if to reward me, the train trip from Danang to Hue is one of the most beautiful journeys I’ve taken.

The train leaves Danang and begins to wind its way slowly up the mountain side. Bit by bit the view clears and reveals mountains, grey blue and shrouded in cloud on one side of the train. But it's the other side that's drawing my eye: dark green foliage falls down the hill to blue blue sea and bays of white sand.

The train chugs along, pulling slowly up the steep hillside. I pull down the window and lean out, feeling the heat in my face. Even the normally sleepy Vietnamese passengers – there are stretches on this trip when the entire carriage has spent long hours dozing – raise themselves and gather round the windows admiring the beauty of their country.

As we climb we pass tiny remote stations, painted lemon yellow and pale pink. At each, the sole occupant seems to be a uniformed guard who stands stiffly to attention as we pass, flag raised high. We pull through dark tunnels and emerge back into the light and another astounding view.

For two hours we trundle up and up then, gathering speed, we're heading down the other side of the range and are soon running so close to the sea that I can feel the spray in my face and smell the salt and fish on the air.

The tracks turn back in land, beside rice paddies and muddy pools till we arrive, an hour later, in Hue, Vietnam’s old imperial capital. It’s a city of two halves, bisected by the sleek brown ribbon of the Perfume River. On the left bank is the modern city; on the right the walled citadel of the old emperors.

The following morning dawns hot. At 9.30 the temperature is 38C. I wander slowly over the bridge to explore the old city. Along the edges of the citadel wall the new city is intruding, mobile phone shops, jewellery arcades and motorcycle repair stores cluster along the edge of the wall, hawkers shout their wares, cyclo drivers lounge in the shade.

But inside the Imperial Citadel, all is calm. Much of it lies in ruins, which only adds to the tranquillity of the place. Covered walkways link dark wood panelled rooms that open to giant lily ponds; soft breezes blow through and from the corner of an eye you glimpse the faded pink, green and gold of a temple gate in the undergrowth. It’s easy to imagine the emperor and his concubines gathering in the cool shade or mandarins scheming in a hidden corner. Other areas have been restored and bring to life the pomp and ceremony, the wealth and splendour of the court.

The weather is getting closer and hotter, in the distance a rumble of thunder brings the promise of rain so I leave the 19th century and head back to the 21st. At the modernist university, students are returning from lunch, cycling in the gates and walking in the shade. The girls looking elegant in their traditional silk suits; the boys trying to carry a louche air.

Away from the university, the whole city is talking about football. The cylco drivers vie to share their knowledge of the England team; Rooney is the talk of the town.

Monday, 7 June 2010

It's not all sea, sand and sunshine

I’ve spent the last two days in bed with a cold, sleeping, reading in a desultory fashion and indulging in feeling a bit homesick and sorry for myself. Being ill does that to me wherever I am; I lie there feeling lousy and wracked with self pity. I think I enjoy it in a masochistic way.

Luckily the hotel I’m in is a cut above some of those I’ve stayed on this trip. It’s peaceful and cool; my room is painted a pale aquamarine and the light from outside filters through white linen curtains. The bed is comfy, with thick sheets and there’s a spa bath in the bathroom (a serious luxury – most of the hotels I've stayed in have a shower squeezed in beside the toilet, which is functional enough but doesn't make for an indulgent bath time).

This is one time when it doesn’t help to be travelling alone: too much time with my own blue thoughts and no one to shake me out of it. I wonder why I do it. Over the past 20 years I’ve made four big solo trips to Asia, India and the Middle East and taken lots of short solo holidays all over the place. On the practical side, it’s often because there’s no one who can come with me, so it’s go alone or stay at home. But I think it’s more than that this time.

This is a personal journey, one that I’ve been inspired to take because I’ve flown this route so many times in the past 20 years and always wondered what was happening on the ground beneath me. And it’s part of an internal journey I’m taking too, as I try to feel out where I belong and where I want to live for the next 20 years. Ever since I left Germany with my family when I was 7 years old I’ve been torn between Europe and Australia and those divided loyalties are still playing in my head today.

I’m also trying to figure out what it is that I want to do and what I want to say as a writer and as a journalist. I’m not so much trying to find inspiration as some kind of meaningful point to putting pen to paper. Can words change anything?

Though I’m physically moving, my internal journey feels much more stop start: one step forward, two steps back. Maybe I won’t know how much distance I’ve covered till I’m back home in London, seeing it and my life there with (hopefully) new eyes.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

On the rails

Finally, after almost a month of travelling by bus, boat and moto, I’m back on the train with a ten hour journey from Nha Trang to Hoi An. And it’s great to be off the road and back on the straight and narrow track.

At first I don’t feel that relaxed about the experience. Getting on the train in Vietnam involves an undignified scramble, with everyone using elbows, shoulders and the kind of pushing and shoving you normally only see in the front row of a rugby scrum. An old woman, in her 80s if she’s a day, is moving slowly into the seat before mine. I’m waiting in the aisle to let her settle and behind me are a crowd of shouting Vietnamese, all trying to push past. I shout back and gesture at the old woman; it halts the tide for around a second before the shoving starts again.

When I’m finally seated and have finished glaring at everyone else around me (a good ten minutes or so later) I take a deep breath and look out the window. It’s as if Vietnam has turned on a nature slide show designed to calm and uplift tourist tempers.

In the soft light of dawn the train is running through emerald green rice paddies. Just behind are mountains, pale blue grey in the morning light, running one behind the other to the horizon. On the other side is the sea; calm and mirror clear.

The stewards bring breakfast through and the scent of rice porridge with herbs and chicken fills the carriage. I drink thick sweet coffee and eat a baguette that I bought at the station; crisp and fresh it fills my lap with crumbs.

The day brightens. Ducks squabble and float in dormant fields turned ponds and mud covered blue black water buffalo pause their masticating to watch the train go by. The fields start to fill with farmers. One walks with a hoe over his shoulder and his conical straw hat, a picture postcard shot of Vietnam. Others stand ankle deep in the mud, bent double, harvesting bunches of rice by hand. It’s picturesque from the train but it must be terrible, back breaking work, particularly as the day wears on and the heat builds and beats down on heads and shoulders.

I notice that graves are situated on the corner of many fields. Big, often gaudy mausoleums, some cared for, others over run, sit watching over rice and corn fields. There’s a kind of pleasing symmetry about it all: work the land during life and then return to the earth in that very spot. Some graves are just sand covered mounds. At first I think they must be recent but then, as they become increasingly regular, I realise that for the poor a headstone is a cost that can’t be met.

By the time I arrive at Danang in the mid afternoon, I’m enjoying the process of travel again. Train travel is a thousand times more peaceful, picturesque and relaxing than travel by road.

For starters you can move about, there’s none of the cramped frustration that comes from sitting in one seat for hours on end. I wander to the restaurant car to drink tea and eat lunch (rice with vegetable stir fry and a pork wonton, £1) and then check out the sleeper carriages, chat with Vietnamese passengers using smiles and sign language and stand by an open window in the guard’s space enjoying the breeze on my face.

It’s also a much smoother journey. Forget stopping and starting, traffic jams and traffic lights, instead there’s the rhythmic and soothing clack of the rails beneath my feet. The constant tooting of horns that is an integral and irritating part of driving in Asia is finally also absent.

And, I realise, train travel is much more picturesque, too. Roads, inevitably, become populated by towns as people take advantage of the access and business they provide. Railways, meanwhile, are less desirable to live beside – all you have is the noise and inconvenience of trains rattling by. And that means that for the most part, railway lines run through countryside. When they do hit cities they sit out of view, behind homes and businesses rather than in front, unintentionally providing a much more intimate and honest view of life than the front facade ever shows.

Friday, 4 June 2010

The bizarre and the beautiful

Vietnam is home to some amazing architecture. Ho Chi Minh City in particular has plenty of interesting building, which surprised me as it's not generally considered an architectural gem.

In central Saigon, 19th century French villas are hidden down side streets. With beautiful gardens and cool high-ceilinged rooms they make exquisite cafes. Add the Vietnamese talent for making delicious coffee and it’s easy to become hooked on this combination of caffeine and class.

I've become addicted to iced coffee while I've been here, rich, sweet and very refreshing. The Vietnamese way is to make fresh coffee, add just a smidgen of condensed milk and then pour it all over ice. Drink one of these in the shaded courtyard of a French colonial era villa and life feels very sweet indeed.

The city’s small art gallery is also in a French-era villa. The quality of the art is variable but the space is amazing, with original tiles, beautiful stained glass windows, ornate iron work and high high ceilings.

Then there’s the Reunification Palace. A 60s building, designed by architect Ngo Viet Thu, it was the home of the President of South Vietnam and is famous in most people’s minds for the moment when a north Vietnamese tank broke through the fence and rolled across the lawn, signifying the end of the Vietnam war.

Today the palace is a museum and rooms have been left as they were at the moment of communist victory. You can visit the command bunkers below ground, see the cabinet rooms, the reception spaces for visiting dignitaries, even the private presidential areas.

The architecture is beautiful; wood and concrete and wide open spaces with constant glimpses of the gardens. I especially like the clever external cladding that allows the large windows to be fully open and cooling breezes to blow throughout.

The rooms themselves are decorated in a variety of tastes and my personal favourites are the cinema – swathed in deep red velvet – and the 70s gambling room (pictured). You have to love the round sofa.

Outside HCMC there are occasional glimpses of modernist French villas among the otherwise dull residential blocks, especially in the highlands. Dalat is a hill station, surrounded by mountains covered in pine forests, deep lakes, long waterfalls and temperature's of a comfortable 20-25C even in summer. It’s where the French went to recuperate from the tropical heat and the scent of pine needles beneath your feet and the chill in the air did bring Europe to my mind. For a moment I felt almost homesick for cool wet summers.

Dalat is also home to Hang Nga, known locally as ‘the crazy house’. It’s the work of 71 year old architect Mrs Dang Viet Nga and is a project that’s best described as Gaudi-esque.

With lots of colourful curved concrete, this tree shaped house with gothic back drop features a series of bedrooms, decorated in a surreal style.

The whole place is a work in progress – the day I visited the architect was visible on a distant roof, dressed black (but of course), wearing a traditional conical hat to keep off the sun and directing workmen on the next phase.

You can visit or choose to stay the night in one of the rooms...though frankly I would not find the staring eyes of that red cat conducive to sleep.