Thursday, 25 September 2014

The Travel Diaries: Cheung Chau and Chloé Afternoon Tea at the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong

With our Vietnamese adventures behind us, Joss got ready to show me more of Hong Kong. Our first stop was the Mandarin Oriental's Clipper Lounge for their Chloé afternoon tea, so we dusted off our heels and set out to gobble up lots of cakes and catch up with a mutual friend.

I have to say, we were very excited about the afternoon tea. We were expecting the Chloé theme to come across strongly, maybe in the form of handbag shaped cakes or sandwiches fashioned into little dresses. Sadly, we were rather disappointed. The only hint of Chloé seemed to come from a chocolate bow atop one cake and a little chocolate plaque stating the brand name adorning another. It just wasn't the fashionista experience we were expecting!

Having said that, the afternoon tea was still rather enjoyable and reasonably priced, especially when compared to English afternoon teas. Our teapots were routinely refreshed and the scones were particularly delicious, as were the savoury tartlets. We had a lovely time nattering over cake, just not quite the time we were expecting. However we did manage to do a little celebrity spotting since the Hong Kong pop star William So and his entourage ended up sitting at the table behind us!

Our next excursion took us out to the little island of Cheung Chau, an old fishing island. Here, we sampled delicacies such as deep fried ice cream and balls of crushed ice, flavoured with a rainbow of different sauces.

After stuffing oursleves full of yummy snacks, we walked up along the steep seafront to the secret cave of Cheung Po Tsai, the notorious Hong Kong pirate.

 The cave opening was a tiny gap in the rocks which took a little climbing to get down to. Once we had scraped our way down, clutching our phone torches tightly we proceeded to wiggle and squeeze our way through the narrow cave opening and then climbed down an old, rusting ladder, before bravely creeping down the dark, narrow cave passage. We could see how a wanted pirate could hide down there and evade capture since the cave was so well hidden! It was also rather scary however, so we dashed through it quickly, eager to return to the sunny outdoors!

After our little caving adventure, we decided to spend the rest of our afternoon along the sea front, where Jossi had a chance to get more familiar with a bicycle. Recently, I was a little shocked to discover  that Joss had never learnt to ride a bike and so with this in mind, we hired one and I set about attempting to teach her. We must have been creating quite a spectacle however, since one friendly fisherman abandoned his work to come help, while restaurant staff cheered us on from their restaurants!

Cheung Chau is a wonderful little place for a day trip- there's plenty to do, despite the island being tiny and we had a great time! Although later that evening, the pair of us crawled into bed tired and just a bit bruised from the day's excursion!

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The Travel Diaries: Hanoi

In between and after our time in Ninh Binh and Ha Long Bay, Jossi and I kept returning to Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. There were a lot of different things to discover there and so we spent much of our days roaming the streets, finding new places to eat, shops to visit and sites to see.

One evening, Jossi took me to a restaurant, Quan An Neon, her and her family had visited before. The whole place was done up like a covered market, with bamboo stalls lining the walls, filled with busily cooking chefs, and jungle-like plants everywhere. The food was some of the best we had in Vietnam.

We ordered an amazing papaya salad (the dressing was just incredible!), prawns steamed in coconut water, fried spring rolls, squid, a rice dish and pho. We shared all the dishes while Joss laughed at my (slowly improving!) chopstick skills.

Another fantastic little food place we found was called Pho 24. This is a Vietnamese chain of restaurants selling, unsurprisingly, primarily pho. Pho is a thin noodle soup, flavoured with fresh veg and normally a combination of meats. It was delicious! They also served this amazing lemon-y lime drink which was so tasty that Joss and I returned to Pho 24 twice more just to drink the drink!

 While wandering through the street, Joss and I happened upon the Women's Museum. Surprisingly, this was one of the most interesting places we visited. Each floor was devoted to a different area of a Vietnamese woman's life: fashion, 'in the home', and 'in history'. We learnt a surprising amount about Vietnamese life as a whole and about the important roles women have undertaken, from bread winners to soldiers in the Vietnamese war, but also about how hard life can be for the Vietnamese people. One short video on the life of the street sellers was particularly moving as it showed us how women would leave their homes in the countryside and work impossibly long days to try and make enough money to send back to their families.

During our visit to the Museum, we were lucky as a special Korean cultural exchange event was happening. Therefore, there were a number of things happening, including a dance and music show. However, most importantly, this meant that we had the chance to dress up in traditional Korean outfits! This meant that two very excitedly giggling girls queued with a bunch of (much younger) students in order to try on the colourful outfits.... I regret nothing!

One of our final activities in Vietnam was a cooking course at The Orchid restaurant. This was absolutely fantastic and definitely one of the highlights of our trip.

We were picked up at our hotel door by little carriages on the front of bikes, given Vietnamese traditional hats and whisked off to a local market where our chef took us to buy our ingredients for the day and try some local delicacies.

As our chef, Mr Tien,  took us around, he explained where some of the food came from and what it was used for. I was shocked to find out that the meat we saw being sold had all been butchered that morning in the countryside and when it ran out, the sellers would return home, butcher more and bring it straight back!

One local delicacy we were encouraged to try was duck foetus, boiled in it's egg. This however proved to be a little much for Joss and I who struggled to take a bite while the store holders laughed good naturally at us. Thankfully, after, we were offered something a little more palatable- cinnamon pork in a soft, doughy bun!

Once back at the restaurant, we were excited to discover that we would be the only two in the class! As our class kicked off, we learnt how to finely chop our ingredients and watched as Mr Tien minced pork by hand, simply by chopping it over and over with a knife in each hand. We also saw how to BBQ inside- simply set up your BBQ next to a window with a fan behind and just blow any smoke straight on out!

By the end of the class, we had cooked Hanoi spring rolls, char-grilled pork balls with vermicelli, fried chicken with lemongrass and chilli and a kind of black bean desert.

The food we created was amazing. Once it was all prepared, we sat down and ate a banquet right there in the kitchen. There was so much food that Joss and I didn't have a hope of finishing it and so our leftovers were kindly boxed up for us and we polished them off for dinner as well!

Sadly, before long it was time to leave Vietnam. We had had an incredible time, met some lovely people and experienced some amazing things. But as they say, all good things must come to an end. Hopefully though, we'll be back soon!

Monday, 22 September 2014

The Travel Diaries: Halong Bay

After seeing some of the amazing sites of Ninh Binh, it was time to take to the seas and discover Halong Bay, or 'descending dragon bay'.  Legend has it that many years ago, the Gods sent a family of dragons to the Vietnamese people to help them defend Vietnam from invaders. These dragons spat many precocious jewels into the ocean and where these landed, great islands rose, forming a natural wall against the invaders who then became shipwrecked upon the rocks. The mother dragon decided to stay among the islands and so descended into the bay, which was then named 'Ha Long' Bay after her.

Halong Bay certainly looked magical. Everywhere you look, great sheer towers of limestone rise out of the water, covered in thick green vegetation. We took a boat trip from Ha Long City to see the islands close up and to visit the caves which tunnel through the rock formations.

We took a kayak to get a closer look at one of the islands. We paddled our way through a low rock tunnel, emerging into a hidden bay, surrounded by more sheer limestone cliffs. The scenery really was breathtaking!

We also delved into a huge cave network which bored through one of the islands. The rock formations were beautifully lit up by multicoloured lights, making the cave feel completely mystical!

Jossi and I both really enjoyed the boat trip. It was amazing to Halong Bay first hand and not just as a picture in a book. It was one of the places I had been looking forwards to visiting the most and the image I had held in my head of Vietnam while we'd been planning our trip.

However, a word of warning! The boat trips are great, but watch out for being ripped off when it comes to drinks! These were offered around as if free, but everyone was billed at the end of the trip! Bit of a nasty shock to everyone on board and the only downer on what had been an amazing trip.