A Paradise within Chaos

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Tucked away in the hidden alleyways of District 10 lies Casablanca; an oasis of calm and peace hidden amongst the relentless hustle and bustle of Saigon.  The small, unassuming restaurant boasts a warm and welcoming atmosphere coupled with some of the best Moroccan dishes I have ever had the pleasure of eating. Granted I’ve only tried Moroccan food once before, but it was quite the experience to live up to.

Saturday night was a wet and gloomy evening, I was half tempted to stay tucked up in a blanket with a hot chocolate and an episode of Miranda. Realistically though, if I did that every time it rained in HCMC, I’d never leave the house. I’d read about Casablanca in an issue of ‘The Word’ and I was sold the moment I saw the title ‘the only Moroccan restaurant in Saigon’. Ever partial to a good spoonful of couscous (and after millions of sloppy and gruel-esque attempts to make it myself), I decided to give it a try.

Riahi, the head chef, welcomed Tom and I into his completely empty restaurant. Clearly other Saigoneers had opted for the more sensible plan of staying indoors. The lack of social atmosphere didn’t faze me though; I was far too busy obsessing over the man’s fez (move over chef toque!) and wondering what I’d look like wearing it. I’ve never really been a hat person in truth, and after 2 wines I still hadn’t plucked up the courage to ask for a try. Woe is me.

Nonetheless, we were seated and I had chance to take in my surroundings. Casablanca boasts a very homely vibe; cushions, quilts and furs (some nicer than others; I did have a momentary “there’s a dead dog lying next to me” panic attack) scattered everywhere. And in every corner hung traditional African tunics. The thing that really caught my eye though was a large traditional silver tea pot in the corner on a matching platter surrounded by shot-glasses decorated in tribal markings. I spent a number of minutes sizing it up to see if it’d fit in my handbag. Again, don’t judge, I just thought it’d look lovely in my new kitchen.

The menu was simple (4 options per course), which was a welcome change to the overwhelming novels you’re usually presented with in most restaurants in Vietnam.  We opted for the olive and dips appetizer to share (definitely could’ve had one each though). Then for a main I had a couscous and chicken dish with some divine slow roasted vegetables and Tom opted for the clay-pot beef Kofta. Both of which were absolutely mouth-wateringly delicious.

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But it was dessert where things really started kicking. I ordered the ‘Stuffed Gazelle Horns’ (My limited knowledge of Moroccan cuisine did have me fooled for a while that I’d be presented with a real gazelle stuffed horn … not embarrassed about that … one little bit … at all). These little pastry numbers were just heaven on the tongue; light and citrusy with a hint of almonds and accompanied by mint tea (served in none other than the infamous silver teapot!). After the tea pouring ceremony – a slightly OTT performance by our waiter – I got to taste the best tea I have probably ever had in my life. And I’m from the land of tea. It certainly gave Tetley a run for their money.

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Riahi re-emerged, fez still in place, and presented us with our bill; I was a little ashamed at the audible gasp that escaped my mouth when I saw the total of just over 1,00,000vnd, but I was quick to slap my hand for being shocked at a price total of £30 for a 3 course meal for two, 2 glasses of wine and 2 pints of beer. Vietnam is great. I don’t know why people don’t venture out this way more often. I don’t think I’m going to readjust well when I finally move back to London …

So all in all, a very successful evening out and one I highly recommend. And after a quick look on TripAdvisor it would appear that I’m not alone. Go give Riahi a visit and please do yourself a favour and ask to try on the fez. It really will save you from a lifetime of regret.

Address:

58/9 Thanh Thai Street, Ward 12, District 10, HCMC

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The End of the Affair

Last time I went to Nha Trang, it looked a little like this:

And this time I went to Nha Trang, it looked a little like this:

So many of my students have raved about the beach resort of Nha Trang, and trust me, I’ve really tried to fight to love it as much as they clearly do. But after 2 bouts of flu, an infected blister and the ruin of 2 pairs of shoes and one (heartbreakingly) beautiful pair of trousers, I’ve resigned to the fact that Nha Trang and I were just never meant to be.

Nonetheless, here are some of the highs and lows of my most recent visit.

After a surprisingly comfortable 8 hour train journey, my friend from Blighty and I arrived into a warm and overcast (but dry!!) Nha Trang. At this point, we happily welcomed a lonely Australian backpacker onto our taxi bandwagon, a kindness which I instantly regretted; obviously, he had no cash on him – reason 1 why I hate backpackers. Obviously, he’d had to best time ever on his travels so far and couldn’t wait to share his “unique” experiences – reason 2 why I hate backpackers. Obviously, he was proud of not showering in days – reason 3 why I hate backpackers.

After the longest 5 minutes of my life, we finally arrived at our Premier Inn style hotel; a basic but very comfortable little 3 star number, just 100m from the beach front. Following a rather romantic dinner at Veranda (highly recommended!) we crashed hoping to be fully rested for an arduous next day at the beach. Thankfully this is exactly the way the following day turned out. I couldn’t have been happier when I opened the curtains to bright sunshine and a smiling Buddha glistening on the hill in the distance.

A dance show we stumbled across on our way back from dinner

A dance show we stumbled across on our way back from ‘Veranda’

The view from our hotel - prizes for anyone who can spot the Buddha ...

The view from our hotel – prizes for anyone who can spot the Buddha …

Perfection!

Perfection!

Once we’d soaked up enough rays for our English-Rose complexions, we headed out for a little bit of culture in the form of the Po Nagar Towers. At only 20,000vnd per ticket, we enjoyed a very relaxed walk around the old relics. (Even if we did break the rules a little by baring our shoulders, knees and ankles).

Breaking the rules

Breaking the rules

Some gargoyles (of sorts)

Some gargoyles (of sorts)

A very glamorous Buddha

A very glamorous Buddha

A religious balancing act

A religious balancing act

That night we ended up in the infamous ‘Sailing Club’ – the less said about that the better. Yes, really.

And thus begins the typhoon. Saturday was a complete wash out; just venturing out to get a pizza was a life-threatening event.

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The memory is too painful – RIP my beautiful, perfect fit skinny jeans

Determined not to let the rain get us down though, we spent our final day on a snorkelling tour, something I’ve always wanted to do. There was intermittent rain throughout the day, but luckily there was very little wind, making our boat trip chilly but calm. The coral was of no Great Barrier Reef standard, but the experience was nonetheless incredible. I’m no expert diver, by any stretch of the imagination, but I couldn’t have had a better time. I was in a real life Finding Nemo – what more could you want out of life? I’ve finally managed to achieve my lifelong ambition of swimming with Dory. Don’t judge! My burnt rear-end was an undesirable extra from the experience, but it was well worth the uncomfortable flight home for.

In retrospect, I think I may have been a little dramatic at the beginning of this post. While I do feel Nha Trang has a personal vendetta against me, I did really enjoy this most recent trip far more than my last one. But would I risk visiting again for the ol’ third time lucky? Honestly? Probably not.

Bitter-Sweet Goodbye

One of the perks of my job is that, every 9 weeks, I get a week off. Seriously loving life. You know you’re jealous really.

Each English language course at CEFALT lasts just 9 weeks.  Following this, there’s an admin week where all the exam results are collated and certificates awarded. Luckily, this has absolutely nothing to do with me so I get to run away. Yay! Usually, my week off is spent eating way too much, drinking way too much and sunbathing way too much – I expect this next week to be no different, especially as I have a friend visiting from the UK. Beyond excited!

My final class was on Saturday morning and saying goodbye to my students is always a bitter-sweet moment, especially with my 5-11 year olds. I usually grow strong attachments with all my kids quite quickly (the motherly instinct in me), so I can get a little emotional saying goodbye. Above all else though, it has usually taken me around 9 weeks just to get the little tyke’s cooperation and respect. I finally gain their trust just to shatter it all by saying goodbye. By this 9th week, the kids have also started to grow a little antsy; fed up of my games, my way of teaching and my form of punishments. I’ve gathered quite the reputation as a bit of a crazy teacher through my disciplinary methods, namely ‘The Naughty Corner’. This is when the accused is placed in the corner of the classroom, with their back to the class and their arms outstretched. Should they misbehave whilst in this position, they are then told to move their arms in continuous small circular motions. The rest of the class find it hilarious, that is, until they’ve been victim to it themselves, then you’ve never seen such empathy!

 

Speaks for itself doesn't it really?

Trouble.

 

một, hai, ba, cheese?

Một, Hai, Ba … Cheese?

Saying goodbye to my teenagers is usually a less dramatic affair – their last lesson comes after their final exam, so no one usually shows up anyway. I’m also quite strict with my teenagers, so I actually think they’re a little relieved when it’s all over (*sad face*). Last week caught me completely off guard though when two teenage students actually presented me with goodbye gifts.

Beautiful scarf

Beautiful scarf

Handmade bracelet (spelt correctly no less!)

Handmade bracelet (spelt correctly no less!)

It’s times like this that remind me why I’m out here; so far from home yet so at home. Bitter-sweet moments.

Cirque Du Saigon

“Roll up. Roll up. It’s show time!” Well, I’m assuming that’s what the Vietnamese ringleader shouted over the speakers as we walked through Gia Đình park anyway…

Contortionists, clowns and gymnasts; all you’d expect from a normal circus really.

I’d read about the circus in July’s issue of Ơi Magazine and it looked like a fairly hilarious night out. I did a little bit of research and found the HCMC Circus website, which says that shows are performed every Saturday and Sunday evening at 7.30pm. On arrival, we were informed that this was in fact out-of-date information and that the show actually starts at 8pm. We were also informed that the online ticket price of 70,000vnd was also incorrect, and that tickets are now 120,000vnd. Who were we to argue with a price increase from £2 to £4 though really?

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The circus pavilion was as you’d imagine: a huge circular tent structure with tiered seating inside. With our tickets, we were allocated seats, which were the best in the house (being ‘tourists’ and all) but which also meant, the nearer it got to show time, the more and more we became surrounded by a sea of Vietnamese families. It soon became obvious that we were the warm up act.

Anyway at 8pm, music begins to blare from the speakers and my initial thought is ‘why am I at a Jewish wedding?’ The music was what you’d expect to be played during the Horah. The ring-leader arrived on stage, a woman dressed in a gorgeous, white Áo Dài, keeping things traditional. Shortly after, the acts followed:

The Clowns

The Clowns

The Contortionist

The Contortionist

Look at the angle of her back!!

Look at the angle of her back!!

The next act was a dog act. I didn’t take any photos because it was actually really difficult to watch. 4 dogs were brought on stage, all stuffed into a small cage. They first did a few Crufts-esque tricks, which were cute, but then they moved onto a ‘classroom’ sketch. During which, the dogs were clearly a little antsy and mischievous (I guess being cooped up in a cage for hours will do that to you) and whenever they misbehaved they received quite a severe slap on the head. I didn’t enjoy that.

I'm pretty sure the girl on the far left was a last-minute stand-in. She just couldn't keep the clubs in the air

I’m pretty sure the girl on the far right was a last-minute stand-in. She just couldn’t keep the clubs in the air

This balancing act guy wasn't really a crowd pleaser. He had one HUGE neck though!

This balancing-act guy wasn’t really a crowd pleaser. He had one HUGE neck though!

The snake act was truly terrifying - Tarzan kept kicking all 3 snakes to provoke an attack and when they wouldn't perform, he just pulled down their jaws to show the crowd the inside of their mouths. Not nice.

The snake act was truly terrifying – Tarzan kept kicking all 3 snakes to provoke an attack and when they wouldn’t perform, he just pulled down their jaws to show the crowd the inside of their mouths. Not nice.

Contortionist woman back, but this time with hoops. She had a bit of a maniac smile though.

Contortionist woman came back, but this time with hoops. She had a bit of a maniac smile though.

It's a human slinky!

It’s a human slinky!

 

 

The final act - very muscular men in huge iron wheels. Very Cirque Du Soleil!

The final act – very muscular men in huge iron wheels. Very Cirque Du Soleil!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While the night was hilarious, it wasn’t quite the glamorous affair it’s depicted to be online, or even in Ơi. But, to be fair, I think my overall view of the evening was probably tarnished by my unnecessarily eager anticipation to see some trapeze artists, who obviously had the night off on this occasion.

Lowlight

The animal acts were too difficult to sit through. If you’re sensitive about animal cruelty, I wouldn’t advise going to this circus. Especially as, during peak season, they apparently introduce monkeys, elephants and horses into the mix.

Highlight

The clowns were genuinely hilarious and clearly loved to perform. (They weren’t too bad to look at either). Similarly, the contortionist-turned-hula-hoop woman was perhaps one of the most talented gymnasts I’ve ever seen. Although my loyalties still lie with Beth Tweddle, obviously.

Address:

Công Viên Gia Đình, Hoàng Minh Giám, Phường 9, Phú Nhuận, HCMC

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