About saigonsays

Hello This blog began as a journal of my family's time living in Saigon, Vietnam, but is now more of a repository of thoughts about work, family, and the incredible and often hilarious moments confronting ex-pats living in this weird and wonderful city. I am originally from London (for anyone from London, I'm actually from Amersham, but this tends to mean not a lot to the vast majority of people I work with and meet in Asia). In January 2013 I started a new writing project, following some changes in my life - www.definitelymaybe.me - and I welcome you to join in the discussion over there, too. I am probably drinking a coffee as you are reading this. 'Cheers' for stopping by (I am lifting my cup as we speak) and enjoy today.

Rajasthani Rooster

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Smoke o’clock, Jodhpur

Indeed, the title of this post makes no sense really, without the additional footnote that, back in January during Chinese New Year (Rooster year) Issy and I took a trip to Rajasthan.

In fact, I’d set up these photos and curated that catchy title whilst we were on our flight home and yet had just not quite managed to write up some lines to glue the images and the memories all together – until now.

If my most recent work trip to West Bank and Gaza, earlier this month, already feels like a hazy memory, then the brain is really scratching around looking for the according nodules of recollection which house the sights, sounds and sensations that we experienced in India, four months back.

What does immediately come to mind is what a relatively seamless expedition we managed – 1,500 kms in 6 days from Jaipur to Jaisalmer, and back again – before closing out by dropping in at the Taj Mahal for a final day’s soak up of one of the world’s most iconic sites.

Getting around Rajasthan is fairly simple and affordable. The trains are a great experience, and we also lucked out with a wonderful driver and hire car for most of our trip “out west”.

Starting in Delhi, dodging thunderstorms in rip-off auto rickshaws and finding everything closed for Republic Day, we did finally stumble upon a quaint haveli — Dharampura — to escape the showers and drink some tea. One of those preserved throw-back buildings which mesmerize, given the back-drop outside of cluttered hole-in-the-wall shops, constant traffic, shuffling feet and precarious potholes.

It was a charming find, for sure.

Dharampura Haveli, Delhi

In search of tea and havelis, Delhi

We had two visits to Jaipur, the first being a brief layover on our way westwards to Jodhpur, and to pick up our car.

Jaipur is famed for its “pinkness” and its fabric, and so we put in an early morning run to get a glimpse of the former, and we were then on a promise for a longer stay on our way back, very much because of the latter…

We love our instagrams-whilst-jogging we do

And so onto Jodhpur, and a second fleeting one night stay, complete with early morning run, to cram in as much seeing as much as we could.

Notable memories (revisiting these photos is helping blow the cobwebs away, it turns out) included our first mouth-watering parathas, but also then being chased by stray dogs at 6am the next day, whilst we were in hot pursuit of a sunrise shot at the Mehrangarh Fort.

Sadly, we weren’t allowed in to the Fort itself (apparently we were 3 hours too early) and so, once more, we pledged to come back on our return leg.

Meantime, not a moment to lose – we had a hotel booked the next day in Jaisalmer…

Serene (in spite of a hungry pack of dogs waiting around the corner)

Jodhpur, the blue city

Khandela Haveli, Jaipur (yes, photos out of order at this point)

Lunch stop somewhere in Rajasthan

Jaisalmer — and what a glorious place on earth this place is.

Our daily hotel budget was well and truly blown out of the water for our inaugural night here, staying at Killa Bawan, and taking a room in their fort hotel, with a balcony fit for a Bollywood rendition of Romeo and Juliet. 

Perhaps the chance to rest up here for a few days helped, however I think Jaisalmer is just one of those places that you simply have to embrace, and let it take the lead.

There’s no sense of the pulsating industrialised throb of India’s urban centres here, Jaisalmer instead offers a languid slice of the past with a double measure of fun and humour and humility (and we were literally staying “on the rocks” in that Fort, too, were you to want to extend this gin and tonic analogy to its natural end point.)

We had three nights here (a veritable ‘eon’ compared to the prevailing 5 days of chop and change) including a middle night where we embraced the obligatory camel safari and slept in a tent, out in the (quite) famous Sam Sand dunes.

So, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the full tent experience. That said, the comedy on arrival of there being a complete absence of anybody to meet us, coupled with the so-excruciating-it’s-fantastic evening entertainment, as well as the overall bathos of sleeping in a plastic tent with dark blue walls and sparkly stars stuck on the roof, the very night after the luxury of Killa Bawan where we’d pretended we were in a Shakespearean play, loafing about on a balcony did, I’ll admit, provide us with a generous portion of hilarity.

We also managed to find a branded “UK” off-licence out in the desert, which perhaps made this, of all our nights in Rajasthan, one never to be forgotten.

The view from our room at Killa Bawan, Jaisalmer

As cups of morning coffee go….

More running in Jaisalmer

Lake views

Nomad for the night at Sam Sand dunes

Our camel’s name was ‘Babaganoush’

Love at first sight

After our final evening in Jaisalmer – staying at the sister hotel to Killa Bawan and run by the same loveable and eccentric family – we said our farewells, and turned on our heels.

Our driver, Mukesh, was beaming that morning, showing off his newly acquired threads, after being paid half his fee, and I think also having found his own zen amongst the local cafes in Jaisalmer (whilst being in frequent contact with his mother back home on his phone).

Doubling back through Jodhpur and Jaipur was fab – we had that extra ounce of being “in the know” and we were also deep into the second half of our trip, and so were prioritising and “getting stuff done”.

For Issy, this largely meant shopping. For me, the focus was more on running lots in order to then be free to consume as much food and beer as possible.

After several days of fine tuning our respective objectives, we left Jaipur by train, and across to Agra, with smiles on our faces (and carrying the extra weight of various fabrics, plus some extra “me”).

Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur

Running upto Amber Fort in Jaipur

Jaipur market

By the time we’d rolled off a thousand selfies at the infamous Taj, and then collapsed asleep back in Delhi, after a final night out there with some colleagues from CARE, we’d well and truly ticked all the various pre-arranged boxes for this very special visit.

It had all been so deliciously intoxicating – that dreamy assault on the senses that India tends to deliver.

This is a country, as I’ve many times attempted to summarise on these pages, unlike any – for various reasons and on many different levels – and I can only hope that time will pass quickly enough, and fate will conspire, to get us back there again soon.

There she is!

After dinner paan sampling selfie, in Delhi with friends

Issy at, and looking, ‘Killa’

Jaisalmer streets

One of Issy’s favourite shops (which was a franchise to boot so plenty of choices!)

“This way to the UK off-licence, it’s buy one get one free on Mondays”

Where for art thou?

Issy in India

Issy “on a finger at the Taj” shot

So many quaffable sunrises…

…and sunsets

 

 

 

 

 

My holiday in Australia (written by Florence)

Melbourne
After Christmas Day we flew to Melbourne, and we slept on the plane on our way there. We then met Phoebe at the airport. She drove us to Pobby and Mike’s house (but Phoebe also lives in the house). So does Aggie their dog. Pobby had made an egg and bacon pie, mainly for Daddy. My sister Martha got lots of tattoos from Phoebe.

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Pobby’s egg and bacon pie

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This is where we slept at Pobby’s

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This is Issy, Pobby and Phoebe opening presents.

The next day we went to town mainly to go shopping to Smiggle for me and Martha. The adults went to other shops for some other stuff.

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We walked down this road. It’s called Brunswick Street.

After that day we went swimming with Phoebe and my sister and my Dad in a 50 metre pool. I swam laps.

Raymond Island
The next day we went to Raymond island for New Year’s Eve. We were seeing lots of people there and we slept in a tent.

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Me and Sunny playing at Raymond Island.

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Martha and Hazy at Raymond Island.

After that day we went to the supermarket then we swam in the lake and Bess took me for my first ever sailing lesson. We then played a big game of boules and my Daddy and Max won. That night we watched fireworks and all the kids stayed awake until after midnight.

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Me and Bess sailing.

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Playing boules.

The next day was New Year’s Day and we went for a koala walk and I saw 19 koalas.

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This is a koala.

Then we drove to Mark’s house….

Sorrento
At Mark’s house we had 4 sleeps. We went there with Lulu, Sunny, Hazy and Ella, and also with Max and Quimby, Sam and Matisse and Henry.

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Mark made us spaghetti bolognese when we got to his house.

The next day Lulu, Sunny and Ella went to Little Nippers in the morning to learn to do life-saving. Sunny and Ella went to one beach and Lulu went to a different beach. Me, Issy and Daddy went to see Lulu that day. Martha and Hazy watched cartoons while we were gone.

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This is me watching Little Nippers.

The next day was Tuesday and none of the girls had Nippers so we practiced for a show. We did Wizard of Oz. On Wednesday we saw Ella and Sunny at Nippers then we swam in the sea with them and Lulu joined us. That day we performed the show to the adults and I was both the Wicked Witches and I had to melt at the end.

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Daddy’s favourite picture of the beach.

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Wizard of Oz Show.

At Mark’s we also did the following things – went to see a field full of kangaroos, me and Martha walked to the Lookout with Mark, we went to Mubbles ice cream shop, we played Rolling Sky and Piano Tiles, and we went to see Lulu, Chloe, Holly, Kiralee and Andrew because they also live there. Every night we went to bed late because it was light until very late.

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My photo of Martha at Diamond Bay.

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Collecting flowers with Lulu.

The very next day we went back to Pobby’s house in Melbourne.

Melbourne (again).
When we got back to Melbourne we did some relaxing with Pobby and Mike and I read Harry Potter and we also watched it on TV. And we watched Nanny McPhee.

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With Pobby watching TV.

We wanted to also go outside and so we went to the zoo with our friends Jasmine and Aleisha. I liked the elephants the best. Their Mum bought everyone slushies. Martha played lots more with Aggie and made her sit and shake hands.

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Daddy and Issy at the zoo.

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Eating snacks at the zoo with Phoebe.

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Drinking slushies.

On our last day in Melboure Daddy, Issy, Martha and me went to the Museum and saw real skeleton bones and animals and insects. We also went for fish and chips as it is my Daddy’s favourite food and we bought some yellow peach ice cream. And we had a swing ball tournament with everyone. I came third and Ella came first and Issy came second. In the evening Pobby made chicken pies and pavlova and we also had calipos.

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Pavlova with blueberries and passion fruit.

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Fish and chips was our last lunch in Australia.

On the Sunday we gave Issy her birthday presents and went to the airport. Pobby bought us more presents at the airport. We didn’t sleep on this plane but watched lots of movies and I read my kindle.

In the taxi home we all drank our drinks.

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In a Saigon taxi.

I had a brilliant holiday. This is one of the pictures I took that Daddy said is very professional…

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This is Diamond Bay near Mark’s house in the daytime.

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This is also Diamond Bay but when we went one night time and played goofy on the beach.

Back to the future

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View from a matatu, Kiboga, Uganda

In the summer of 1996 I arrived in Kampala aged 21. I’d spent the three months previous working in Israel on a kibbutz, had then dropped back to the UK for two days to meet up with a university friend, Flora, before we launched off on a year of teaching in Uganda. Last Friday, I returned to Kiboga, on the back of a week of work in Entebbe, and I re-lived as much of my year as a teacher there 20 years ago as I could squeeze into 36 hours…

As Flora and I walked out of Entebbe airport’s arrival terminal for the first time, back in 1996, and breathed in the fragrant dusty wood smoke that was to become a natural home for each of my senses for the year to come, I felt an innocent abandon about what lay ahead.

It was as if all I had known before then disappeared in that moment.

We arrived later in the night in the district of Kiboga, north west of the capital, deposited in an instant out of the side of a battered up matatu taxi, which had miraculously weaved its way unhinged over pot-holed dirt tracks for the previous four hours.

It was pitch black as we stood there on the roadside with Nathan Mayanja, a decorated local leader with whom I was to forge a twenty year friendship, and who had accompanied us from the airport.

I could feel the heat of adrenaline about what was in store next. The wood smoke scent was thicker here, and there was a constant procession of lumpy shadows and bike headlights bobbing past, as a flow of passers-by went about their evening bustle.      Continue reading

Out of Sight

Perhaps the old adage rings true – it can be hard to keep the flame of familiarity burning after long spells of absence, and “out of sight” all too easily leads to “out of mind.” How often do we find ourselves thinking this at the chink of two glasses once again toasting a re-acquaintance, or, as we scramble to agree over the phone on the specifics of a last encounter?

But then, hands up, there is also the sheer laziness on my part of not tending to this blog for the past four months. This blog being one of the only portals I have of putting down a few etchings of my current life, in the hope of forming some vague picture – for the now, and for some day in the future.

And so, in the spirit of our all too often glossed over 24/7 news cycle, to the headlines…      Continue reading

Wanderlusting

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Sunset on Dili beach, Timor-Leste

I double checked the meaning of Wanderlust – which turns out to be the “strong desire for, or impulse to, wander or travel and explore the world”.

Since running off to Uganda when I was 21 years old, in the absence of having any more concrete a plan for how to handle life after university, I’d say my Wanderlust levels have remained piqued ever since.

No doubt some genetic influence from my parents helped fuel my appetite for getting out and “seeing the world”. In reading Dr Suess poems to my daughters (as well as flying them off to different countries almost every school holiday) I suppose instinctively it feels appropriate to want to pass on that particular piece of DNA, connected to wandering, to them also.

Over the past five years, even without that DNA, the travel I’ve undertaken as part of my job has secured for me a schedule for which any aspiring “Wanderluster” would have been thrilled.

As someone working in international development, I can’t quite settle my mind about how conflated my footprint and actions in the world are. Choosing to direct my career into finding better ways to serve the poor, whilst simultaneously responsible for emitting more carbon in an average month than the output my entire family back in the UK manage in a year (ok, Mum and Dad are relatively guilty on the carbon too, but I wanted the analogy to sound extreme!)      Continue reading

Thai Green*

bkk

Beneath snaking concrete viaduct, baking heat
Cooks sunburnt pores, street vending nooks,
Pungent fried sizzles punch lung deep, an urban Kingdom
Jostling air, space, and conditioned lifestyles.

Bangkok.

Spiced iced tea, rice soup, lychee cocktails,
Mesmerizing Soi-mazed corners
Inhale city sewer flavours,
Pavement tiles uneven, tilting, roasting.

Curbside, rainbow taxi ranks flank
Juice bar pit stops, bamboo bar tops,
High rise scrapers, elevators, shopping centres –
Eastern promise meets Western dream.

And still.

Not far flung from this urban jungle,
Nestled north, enveloped forest,
Lies a calmer version –
Country living –
Breathing, feeling,
Fibrous woodland,
Smoke-filled thatch.

Chiang Mai.

Opening up green borders,
Boundaries,
Walk amongst your past-time inclines,
Sun bleached hills and warbled song birds that
Listen back.

Stop here, stop now and let this touch you –
Nature’s glorious paradigm,
Working.

chiangmai

*A poem inspired by a damn fine Saturday morning, and several elephants

Catching a breath in February

Happy New Year!

2016, and Saigonsays trundles on…

This weekend will mark five years since arriving in Saigon, when these pages first kept track of life and work out here and across Asia. Some defining moments within that particular half decade have been and gone, and the familiar confines of my apartment continue to provide a reliable anchor from which it becomes, then, and with a healthy dose of catharsis, a comfort and a pleasure to spin out these words and images.

Two months back, Boxing Day, and Issy and I were headed down to the coast after a tremendous Christmas Day hosting a cheery hoarde of festive revelers. A month ago I was off in Abu Dhabi meeting up with my best friend (and previous author on Saigonsays) for a weekend of “catching up”.

Last fortnight, and over the Chinese New Year period (called ‘Tet’ here) and I was side stepping down a sled run in France, propping up Flo as she skied solo for the first time in her life. And then this week, I’be been working across our closest border, in Phnom Penh.

Next Sunday I’ll fly to Ethiopia on an exciting new project. Bangkok, Hong Kong and Cairo are on the March itinerary also. Yesterday morning an offer landed on my lap to head to Timor Leste shortly after that. And so it goes on…

Too many details to catalogue since I was last peddling these pages (back in Vientiane in November) however the intention is that, hopefully, these two family videos (our Tet skiing holiday to France, and previous Australia visit back in October) might go a way to capturing some of the special experiences shared on both adventures. The photos below that then piece together December festivities and a window into life here since then, with two increasingly active little girls performing, as usual, for the camera.

Stay tuned for some more regular updates (a New Year’s resolution of mine) here and before you can say “where did the first half of 2016 go?”


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Christmas elf

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Christmas cheek

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Christmas gingerbread making

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Christmas Day

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Yellow!

 

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Dig in!

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Four minute Cinderella panto

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Robin Hood

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Boxing Day treats

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Boxing Day walk (in Vung Tau)

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New Year’s Eve boys (Saigon)

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New Year’s Day girls (Mui Ne)

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The view from…our bungalow

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Birthday girl (@ Park Hyatt)

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With Cake (@Abu Dhabi)

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Another year, another sports day

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Tet celebrations

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Poseur

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The view from…the de Groot balcony

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Layered up

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Catching the first powder and remembering how to ski again

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Mont Blanc (on the left)

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Sunrise back in Asia (Phnom Penh) this week.

 

 

 

A Quick Coffee Stop in Laos

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The Mekong River at sunrise. Thailand to the left, Laos to the right.

I’m sat with a delicious Saturday morning coffee, in Naked Espresso, a funky cafe in the thick of the Vientiane backpacker area, having completed my daily ritual here of a brisk walk down the Mekong River nearby, which has presented me with picture perfect views this week of Thailand, just metres away over the water.

Since my last post about holidaying in Australia with Issy, I’ve traveled for work to Colombo, Bangkok, Singapore, and Seoul. Squeezing in a weekend of football in Manila along the way. I’m trying my best to be a good citizen of the world, but for sure I am going to carbon hell.

Vientiane represents my penultimate trip of 2015 and, fittingly, last night I kicked off the evening with some Kiwi friends, in a German owned bar, managed by a kind man called Kami from Tokyo, where we tucked into some Laotian pork rolls, washed down with a few drams of glorious Japanese whisky.      Continue reading