restaurant Secret GardenFinally, for the time being, we stop moving from one place to another, our suitcases are temporarily undone, the clothes hang in the cupboard and folded on the shelves. We found first favorite places to eat and to have a sunset cocktail and the place which bakes good French baguettes.

Now I can sit down, collect my notes and try to describe my first impressions of Saigon. So, here I go.

In Saigon, the contrast is very present. You see opposite things everywhere. Expensive restaurants and street vendors, squatted next to their stalls, communist billboards and Buddhist temples, neat gardens and narrowest dirty alleys, old and new, traditional and modern, Еast and West. Elegant young people, dressed for business and seasoned elderly Vietnamese in traditional conical hats, pushing their carts along the streets. On one bank of the Saigon River meandering through the entire city – constructions of super luxe apartment blocks, on the opposite side – overgrown ramshackle huts with rusty corrugated iron roofs. The river – wide, muddy, ochre-colored, navigable, with watercourses and canals sometimes as narrow and sleepy as countryside creek. All day the river is busy with slowly moving Mekong barges and floating islands of water plants.

On the streets, there is a thick mass of motorbikes and scooters mixed with taxis, bicycles, dusty buses and cars with tinted windows. Everything moves and honks, but rather gentle, without the hatred. It’s a constant dance, a crazy one, but it looks like it follows its own unwritten rules. Motorbikes come so close to cars, that when I am inside of one, I can see imperfections on the riders’ faces and my reflection in riders’ pupils.

Vietnamese are very resourceful. They carry all sorts of things on the back of their bicycles and motorbikes: piled up live pigs, cages with birds, boxes, metal rails, attached or held by hands, passengers hugging mirrors and ladders, baskets with flowers and huge pots with entire trees. From last observations: 1) A family of six – the father is driving, the mother is breastfeeding, one child in front, one child behind, and the smallest baby is dangling in a bucket. 2) A full-size fridge on a passenger seat attached by stripes to the driver’s forehead. 3) A door kept upright only by hands of the passenger. 4) Few gas tanks attached with robes to the seat and the smoking driver.

The daytime heat is strong, but life is bubbling. It only slows down after lunch for a Vietnamese siesta. Locals have this amazing quality to fall asleep almost exactly where they stand, often stretching out on the bare asphalt or bare floor. Full relaxation. Everywhere, where is possible to fasten them, – stretched hammocks bearing locals resting with their soles up in the air.

Vietnamese people are friendly and serious at the same time. They look at you intensely and when you smile at them and they smile back (most of the time), their faces lit up and change dramatically.

The inability to speak the language is the real handicap here. I feel helpless because I cannot explain myself or ask the simplest question. And I won’t even mention, how the prices of fruits and vegetables at the markets double for us, non-speakers. I cannot read signs and street names. All the letters are familiar, but it is not possible to understand anything. All words look alike but sound different. I am trying hard to remember them, but they just don’t stick. And even when they do stick and I produce them in front of Vietnamese, they just softly chuckle. The tonal differences are so subtle, that my ear refuse to conceive and remember them.

I love this dynamic life of a big tropical city, but for now, to make the transition smoother, we installed ourselves in District 2, in Thảo Điền, sort of a nice suburb, a paradise for expatriates. It has everything that expat may need in his or her daily life: restaurants with Western and fusion cuisine, spas, good supermarkets selling imported foods, outdoor lounges with murmuring water features, buddhas and rattan furniture with big soft pillows. The streets here are narrower, the air is cleaner and the prices are higher.

But I can already see that most of the excitement is happening in District 1 and 3, in the heart of Saigon, noisy, crowded, full of little cafes and local places with delicious and inexpensive local food. The Opera House and the Conservatory, the rooftop bars with astonishing sunsets, and hundreds, if not thousands of coffee houses – it’s all there.

Vietnamese love their coffee. It is a national and most popular drink here. Any time of the day. They take it black, with sweet condensed milk, hot or iced, with egg yolks, with frozen yogurt, with coconut milk… even from a nasty concentrate in bottles with the label that clearly state “Not for human consumption” (you have to stay away from those).

French colonization left behind beautiful architecture, coffee, French words, and some food like croissants, flan, and bread, which became the famous Bánh mì, the sort of French baguette, but softer and slightly sweeter in taste.

I also came across a few Russian touches – soviet motorbikes, an old Russian Algebra textbook in one of the local cafes, a samovar in another, hammers and sickles on billboards and holiday decorations, and occasionally middle-aged Vietnamese, speaking Russian.

Saigon is an authentic, beautiful, dynamic city, and so far there are only two things I don’t like about it: the taste of Cameleon leaf, the herb served with some dishes, and the fact, that it is too hot to wear my favorite thing: scarves.

Flowers of the Château de Chenonceau

Замок ШенонсоA last weekend we traveled towards Orléans to take canoes down river Loire and to see the Château de Chenonceau. And what a Château it was. Built across the river, as if floating on the water, it is surrounded by a lovely park on one side and a golden autumn forest on another. Inside were the usual attributes of royal dwellings of that era: old tapestries, small, almost children’s Continue reading

Paris – Dubrovnik (part 2)

First part is here

The mornings and sometimes afternoons we spent on the beach. It was a pebble beach and I have noticed that all the beach goers there belonged to two categories: those who had a water shoes and those who had not. You could recognize the later by their peculiar walk.
The water there was cool, turquoise and incredibly clear (as everywhere in Dubrovnik, even in the harbor), a lovely cliff, covered with pine trees raised on one side of the beach. The locals liked to Continue reading

Paris – Dubrovnik (part 1)

It has been two weeks since we had returned from Dubrovnik, but every time I think about our trip, I can still feel the hot sun on my face, see the sparkling Adriatic sea and hear the shrill screams of the swifts playing above the walls of the Old City.

The trip started with a pleasant realization that I have finally learned how to travel light. All my previous attempts failed, but this time I seem to remember that out of all the clothes I usually take with me, I end up using only one-third of it and regret bringing the rest. Not this trip.

This time packing was easy and fast and I was light as ever – down to one small cabin luggage. Granted, we were only going for 6 days and my handbag is so big, it can easily Continue reading

Five days in Marrakesh

Street in MarrakeshEvery time I heard the word “Marrakesh”, I had a picture in my mind – an ancient city full of yellow sunlight, labyrinths of stone streets, rooftop gardens and inner courtyards with exquisite lanterns and luxurious plants in brightly colored pots… So, when I finally got there, it was and it wasn’t like this. It is an ancient city within 1000 years old red sandstone wall, but it also is ugly buildings, constant pestering by locals, gasoline smell, and endless dust. 
Having traveled in all of the South East Asia,  I have become accustomed to all these  inconveniences, but I have felt that in Marrakesh it took another dimension.
So, we were fortunate to  stay at riad Ayadina – a beautiful little oasis of serenity. Every time we rang the doorbell of the heavy door in the very narrow street just inside of the Wall and it was opened for us, we stepped into almost magical inner world, completely different from the chaotic life outside with  its busy streets, honking cars and motorbikes. We are greeted by the subtle scent of Fleur D’Oranger, soft music, silky fabrics and incredible vivid colors. So, sometimes it was difficult to venture back outside again (and I feel ashamed of confessing that ). An additional perk of this riad was that the cook knew her craft and the dinners were a delight! That again made it even more difficult to leave… And, beneath the riad was Ayadina Baths – an enfilade of arched rooms which contained sacred hammam, massage chambers,  and sauna.
Five days it is not nearly long enough to start to  understand and get to know the place. Especially Marrakesh. But what you can see right away is that Marrakesh is truly a city of colors, textures, and scents. It is everywhere – in sunlit walls, in dry flowers, in all the colorful things which are sold in the busy souk,  in carts loaded with fruits or vegetables, pulled by dusty donkeys… The city is so vibrant,  you can almost feel it breathing. Once you pass beyond the mild annoyance with pestering, you can start to relax and start seeing and enjoying things better. (Mind you, it took us a couple of days to start to understand how to say NO to multiple offerings of help with the directions and feel more confident walking the streets, not looking like a lost tourist:)) And I felt that Marrakesh has much more to offer than what can be seen at the first glance of the city. Perhaps beautiful terraces, courtyards, inner gardens hidden behind the facades of the sandstone houses.
We have decided to make it a relaxing few days and not running around too much, trying to see all the tourist attractions in the area. So, we stayed in our marvelous special place, we eat and drank, we explore the streets by feet and by horse-drawn carriage (activity very touristic, but nevertheless pleasant and useful to get the feel of the city).
But we still took a 12-hour car trip to Ouarzazate to see a different landscape. Once you leave Marrakesh going through the Atlas Mountains towards the desert, it changes. Green expanses with cacti, blossoming argan trees and Berber Villages slowly turning into bare mountains as you go higher over the Tizi n’Tichka Pass and then changing into the dry stony yellow expanse as you descend and getting nearer the dessert. And then everything again in reverse order, as we turned around and came back to Marrakesh (without forgetting to have yet another tagine and mint tea for lunch, of course!)
And to finish our trip nicely, we went to visit the Jardin Majorelle – a little oasis outside of Medina, which contained a villa in bright primary colors-past dwelling of Jacques Majorette-beautiful specimens of trees from all over the world, an impressive cactus collection of all shapes and sizes, nice outdoor cafe and tourists armed with cameras, firmly planted on every path and every corner of the garden. Lovely little place!
 So, in spite of the certain things which initially surprise  and bother the person visiting Marrakesh for the first time,  I can definitely say, that I am looking forward to being back!