Finding a Mekong Delta tour is the least challenging thing a backpacker can do in Saigon. Operators from Sinh Tourist to Hanh Cafe offer similar variations on a theme. A bleary-eyed 5am start on day one, visits to handicraft stores and various local industries and a whistle stop trip around a floating market. This is largely repeated on days two (and three), with the hours punctuated by hotel meals and little chance to interact with the locals that make the area tick.
The road from Nha Trang is awash with litter from endless construction sites. Down to the water, rickety cranes swing huge concrete blocks into place. New golf courses and spas abound. This is wild west capitalism, where quick buildings and a fast buck have become the dominant feature of a nation in a desperate to hurry to keep pace with insatiable demand.
It’s not just on this stretch of coast either. The vast sandy beaches between Da Nang and Cua Dai are being sold off and developed at a rate of knots. Beaches that were once the R and R playgrounds of battle fatigued GIs are quickly becoming insulated playpens for those who want sun and sand without the local culture.
Street food treats are impossible to miss here in Vietnam. Not to mention the fact that if you pick smartly, they’re also the best and cheapest way to eat too.
We’ve been spoilt since arriving three weeks ago. 20000 VND Pho in Hanoi was a chili-infused dream, with the added bonus of blasting out my Sapa-induced head cold. Rice, greens and fried shrimp on a filthy sidestreet in Hue’s Dong Ba market was also a culinary delight, costing less than $2 between us.
Yet it was Hoi An where Vietnam’s sensational street offerings went above and beyond what we’d come to expect. For many coming here, places to eat begin and end with the seafood and bargain beer joints along the riverfront. And there’s no shame in that, what with gorgeous views of the UNESCO supported town and squid and shrimp at bargain prices.
The fog clung hard to the hills as we made our way out of Lao Cai and towards Sapa, Northern Vietnam’s prime destination for those after hilly treks and tribal encounters. Having not managed to reach this town and its surrounding villages on my last visit to Vietnam nine years ago, I was excited and intrigued to take in the views and see how the people dealt with an endless influx of tourists.
It became clear very quickly that the answer to the last question would be both complex and leave me with a sour taste in my mouth. Both about how this area has been affected by the hundreds of tourists who take the overnight train here from Hanoi every day and the agencies which arrange these trips. As our bus made its first stop, it was surrounded by local women, dressed in a mix of ethnic headgear and counterfeit sportswear. They smiled as they shouted, “Looking, shopping,” at the tired and bewildered batch of foreigners on board.
Incessant tinny Tannoy announcements and the nagging nip of toy dogs at the nearby airport shop suggested we’d made a terrible mistake. Guilin airport, and China’s domestic flying scene, were and are a total nightmare. When Paul Theroux eulogised the joys of Chinese train travel in Riding The Iron Rooster, I thought he was perhaps overindulging his never ending distaste for flying. In fact, he was spot on. Taking short hops across this vast country is an awkward nightmare of expensive transfers, tedious waits and inflight food that would make a pet dog heave.
The red lanterns that hang from the eves in Xian’s Muslim Quarter are caked in a thick layer of grey dirt. Much like the rest of this ancient city, the streets of this minority area can’t escape the pollution and filth that hang in the air of most Chinese towns. But while the regular highways and byways of Xian offer a very modern take on Chinese progress, with the aforementioned pollution inescapable, the Muslim quarter rises above everything thanks to truly stunning street food.
As regular readers will know, I’m more than a touch obsessed with eating good quality grub. Hell, it’s half the reason I decided to travel through Asia for six months in the first place.
Yet after four weeks of endlessly impressive and invigorating meals in Japan, a place where even something as unhealthy as tempura can be balanced out with super fresh pickles and steamed veg, we hit China.
In fairness, the first few days, spent partying and pootling around Hong Kong, were punctuated by dim sum to die for at the excellent Maxim’s Palace, as well as delicious and healthy squat and gobble noodles, destroyed in record time in our dash to the races at Happy Valley.
But since then it’s been a grease fest of truly epic proportions. Lunch and dinner everyday in Shanghai and Guilin, our two stops in the Chinese mainland so far, has involved staring down at empty dishes with a shimmering pool of oil looking back up at us. Whether it’s fried rice, greens, pickled cucumbers or ribs, every single dish is ruined by a willingness to kill flavour with fat. Only steamed veggies seem to escape the curse. Endless thirst and culinary disappointment are fast becoming a way of life for us in China.
Just one place so far has managed to rise above the crushing mediocrity. Southern Barbarian, sitting down a small backstreet in Shanghai’s French Concession and recommended by Marta, our Airbnb host, was an oasis of sumptuous fresh mint salads, beef kebabs without an ounce of fat and mashed potatoes with local veg tossed in. This Yunnanese restaurant was made all the better by chirpy staff and a beer list that even allowed me to indulge in a Coopers Green. This was not your typical Chinese oil merchant.
I know I’m not alone in complaining about Chinese cuisine. For a country that is renowned for its vibrant food, it’s been a surprising disappointment. China is incredible, but finding healthy, grease-free food is a task that’s starting to look beyond me.
With a beaming smile, the girl at the checkout expertly wrapped my doughnut in grease proof paper, slipped it into a paper bag, taped it precisely and placed the neat package in a fresh carrier bag. Aside from my shameful doughnut habit, rising to a Homer Simpson-esque five-a-day at the midpoint of our Japan trip, this was indicative of a particularly bad habit that dogs shops throughout the land of the rising sun. Namely, endless over packaging.
Every single shop we’ve bought something in over the past four weeks has insisted on handing us the goods, whether it’s a single apple or a ¥50 biro, in dainty bags that always, without fail, wind up being shoved in the bin. For a nation so (rightly) obsessed with separating rubbish and ensuring recyclable bottles, cans and papers are separated from combustible trash, this strikes me as utterly bizarre. Carrier bags might be reusable, but more often than not end up in bins. They’re just about the most unenvironmentally friendly object consumers get their hands on.
Most amusingly of all, paper shopping bags from clothes stores are almost all covered in thick waterproof plastic when it rains, utterly negating the point of handing out recyclable paper bags in the first place. The times we’ve said we’re ok to go without a carrier we’ve been met with bemused looks. Asking our Japanese and expat friends about this, they’ve told us this just doesn’t happen.
As a confirmed (and admittedly tedious) eco-bore, I’m amazed by this approach. Moan as I do about supermarket shoppers back home using endless carrier bags, bags for life and totes are always in abundance whenever you pick up a pint of milk at Sainsburys.
But it’s not just bags. A KitKat comes in a cardboard box, with three bars inside, each wrapped in thick, hard to open plastic. Every single vegetable or fruit at a supermarket is tightly packed in unrecyclable cellophane, whether it’s a single apple or a hefty radish. Marks and Spencer’s insistence on putting its over washed and too-perfect groceries in needless packaging has nothing on this
It’s hard to understand just why Japan insists on such standards. Perhaps using so many bags is simply down to a wish to provide helpful service that makes consumers feel valued, while wrapping up produce is aimed at protecting from disease, a distinctly Japanese concern. Either way, surely such an unenvironmentally friendly approach is unsustainable.
Clambering the gantry and being cajoled into position by chirpy Japanese grandmothers, it was hard to fathom exactly how we’d found ourselves in this position. It was a bright, if chilly day in Chiba prefecture, two hours across the bay from Tokyo, and we were about to star in a group photo celebrating the graduation of 10 new Buddhist monks. In 20 years time, surely the same chattering wives and mothers who were being so friendly would look back on this snap and wonder who the hell those two beaming gaijin standing at the back were.
We’d been brought to Chiba by Mizuki, Keeley’s language exchange friend. His brother was one of the 10 new monks and we were here to witness him arrive back into society after 100 days of fasting and meditation. After setting out at 6am from Tokyo, we were bleary-eyed when we hard the first distant sounds of drums and chanting. Yet when the 10 arrived at the temple gates, clothed in white robes and led down by temple elders, we were mesmerised.
Standing around the ‘God tree’, where this Buddhist sect’s founder was first enlightened, the new monks clicked castanet-like instruments and chanted an ancient Japanese mantra. After quarter of an hour or so of this, they disappeared to prepare for their cleansing ritual, while we took to the assembled gantry for the family photo.
On their return, the monks had stripped down to just a single cloth covering their modesty, chanting as they were led to ten bamboo buckets filled with icy water. As they grew louder, the water began flying. Drenched, these ten men were being purified in body and mind. This was a truly magical experience and one we would never have seen on a regular temple tour through the tourist hotspots of Kyoto and Nara.
Having left Mizuki’s brother to his religious duties, we drove up into the hills to his family’s own temple. Here we slipped off our shoes and entered a freezing cold yet amazingly welcoming environment. We lit incense, prayed and then ate stunning okonomiyaki, made Osaka-style (like an omelette) by the temple’s housekeeper. She claimed to have sensed that our small party was coming, despite not having been told.
After a second lunch of tempura, we visited our final temple. Here we were told our fortunes and hung then on a nearby tree, before being taken inside and instructed in writing out a prayer in kanji by a resident monk, who then placed them in a beautiful golden Buddha.
Undoubtedly, this was the most moving and interesting day of the trip so far. Having taken in so many temples, it was a privilege to go to one and be given the inside track on exactly how they work and why they hold such an important place in Japanese culture.