Brakes, check. Flaps, check. Lipstick, check.

Trip Start Nov 08, 2003
Trip End Oct 22, 2004

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Tuesday, February 24, 2004


It was another 90 minute rollercoaster ride northwards in a little metal tube powered by a few propellers, and if that wasn't bad enough, the Captain announces his presence on the intercom, or should I say, her presence. A lady pilot of all things, and here we were back in row 30 where I couldn't even guide her along with some back seat driving.

Brakes, check. Flaps, check. Lipstick, check.

I could see the scene now. The co-pilot going through all the checks while Captain Shirley Biggles slaps on a bit more lippy in her rear view mirror, and for God's sake, how's she ever going to park this thing?

The engines roared into life. I waited for her to stall it. Gently with the clutch, gently does it. She taxied to the runway with mobile phone wedged between chin and shoulder before telling her boyfriend she'd call back.

After putting her 'Hello' magazine to one side it was a last check on the eye shadow before it was full throttle with a touch of wheel spin and off we shot at the mercy of . . . a woman.

As we climbed, the sound of Robbie Williams' latest album blared from the cockpit and a waft of Eau de Yves St. Dolce Gabbana drifted through the cabin. She levelled it out at 30,000 feet and wound down her window, letting her blonde hair flutter in the cool breeze before blazing up a Marlborough Light. She was in cruise mode.

It was time to address her terrified back-seat passengers again for an update.

"Hiya everyone, going anywhere nice on yer holidays? I went to Kavos this year and pulled a guy called Nikos. Just a holiday romance though, shame. Did anyone see 'I'm a Celebrity...' this year? That Jordan really gets on my tits, and as for Peter Andre, well . . . oh, flight time is 90 minutes and we're flying really, really high, byyyyyyye."

Half an hour later she took her foot off the accelerator and started her descent just remembering to press the clutch. A mid-air stall beckoned as we floated into Danang airport and hit the tarmac after a couple of bounces, 66 people simultaneously let out their held breaths and steamed up all the windows.

She'd only gone and landed the thing, what could go wrong now . . . damn, she'd have to park it.

After three attempts and the help of a man dressed in green with a couple of fluorescent green paddles she squeezed into an enormous gap, only just nudging the terminal building with her front bumper. If she had had to reverse it in we could still be sitting there today. Maybe all supermarket car parks can learn from airports, and hire men with day-glo paddles to guide ladies and their 'people-carriers' into spaces? Just a thought.

As we walked into immigration she popped her head out of the window and shouted:

"Bye loves, have a nice hol." Before she finished reading her 'Hello'.

Outside customs, our (male) taxi-driver was waiting and off we sped through the non-descript town of Danang for a 30km drive south to Hoi An.

On arrival at our hotel, the Thienh Thanh, we were greeted by a really nice receptionist who presented Sophie with a bouquet of flowers, blimey, not even I've done that.

Our second floor room was nice with a view of paddy fields and a pylon, and not wasting a minute we were back outside for the ten minute walk into the 'Old Town'.

We soon began to realise, Hoi An was everything Nha Trang wasn't. It was really nice for a start, and exactly what you'd expect a clichéd 'Old Town' to look like.

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, guide books described it as 'enchanting' and 'a place well worth lingering in' and they weren't wrong.
A lot of the buildings date back to early 19th century and are open to the public, as well as lots of other French colonial buildings with every other shop appearing to be either a tailors or an art gallery. The town sits on the Thu Bon river, which, 300 years earlier was one of South East Asia's major international ports.

50,000 Dong (under £2) would buy a ticket to visit five places of interest, including a 16th century Japanese Covered Bridge, various old private houses whose owners would act as guides and the Museum of Trading Ceramics, which was better than it sounded. All the quaint, narrow streets were off-limits to cars so all you had to worry about was the odd psycho-scooter as you wandered around town.

Along the waterfront we stopped off at a café for lunch where we ordered the local specialties of Cao Lau and Won Ton. Cao Lau are doughy fat noodles mixed with slices of pork, croutons, bean sprouts, greens and topped off with crumbled crispy rice paper. Hoi An is the only place where genuine Cao Lau can be made because the water used in its preparation must come from the square Ba Le Well on the edge of town (ooh, get me). The Cao Lau was very filling and will set you back about 30p.

Already, Hoi An was fast becoming our favourite little town in Asia and we had eight days to explore.

That afternoon we booked a table for two for the following evening at The Brothers restaurant, a swish eatery overlooking the river, as I was to be the birthday boy tomorrow.


Dull, fine rain greeted the day of my 36th birthday and as I lay there wondering what had happened to my life there was a knock at the door. I opened the door to a couple of staff holding a card, cakes and a bottle of wine. They had seen the birth date on my passport, the little tinkers, and as I closed the door with arms full of goodies, the phone rang. It was the receptionist wishing me a happy birthday in her own inimitable giggly style.

What a way to start the day, all that would be needed now was fifteen pints of beer, a few games of pool and a bit of footie on the box to make the perfect day. Soph, on the other hand, had different ideas. There was some serious sightseeing to be done, birthday or no birthday.

Into town we strode, walking shoes at the ready and straight to the ticket office where we bought our admission tickets. Our five chosen places of interest happened to be very close to one another so in a couple of hours we were finished and ready for the birthday boy's lunch.

We headed for Tam Tams, a famous café/restaurant/bar in the centre of town and were shown to a first-floor table overlooking the main street. We ate our 85th plate of spring rolls, shrimp and squid soup and a ham baguette with a carafe of house white. Dessert was profiteroles and ice-cream with 3 lit birthday candles. Did the whole town know it was my birthday or had Soph tipped 'em the wink?

Afterwards, we crossed the road to The Cargo Club, and sat upstairs with a view along the river. It had been five long minutes since our last bottle of wine so another was ordered. A few tables along sat a couple who's faces rang a bell, and they turned out to be the annoyingly in love kiss-chase couple we had seen bounding down Adam's Peak in Sri Lanka. Very small world.

Evening arrived in a vino-induced haze and after a quick hose down we set off for The Brothers restaurant on the other side of town.

The restaurant was set in a row of French-colonial buildings and after passing through the bar we walked through a lush garden that ran down to the river. As we sat down, a place card caught my attention.

"Happy Birthday Mr Corteoy" with the date underneath, the interesting spelling making a nice change. How on earth did they know? I was beginning to think the whole town was in on it until I saw Soph whistling and looking into the distance with a guilty look on her face, the royster-doyster.

Our blood-alcohol levels were running a little low so four more litres of French plonk were ordered along with the special set menu of soup, (86th plate of) spring rolls, red snapper with chilli and lemongrass, steamed rice with egg plant and a dessert of caramelised banana covered in chocolate sauce. A fine end to a very fine birthday.


After a few days in town we headed 5km east on a rented motorbike to the seaside resort of Cua Dai Beach.

On arrival we were subjected to the usual barrage of hawkers, and after evading them we walked along the shore to the Victoria Hoi An Resort, for our usual fix of seeing how the other halves live. It was nice enough, but nothing special.

After cruising the streets on our two-wheeled throbbing 150cc beast, we stopped off at another local institution, Hai's Scout Café, a dimly-lit establishment on the main street that was to become our regular lunchtime haunt. Lunch would usually consist of pumpkin soup, spring rolls (how did you guess?), sautéed noodles with seafood and apple and cinnamon muffins. Then feeling really flamboyant we ordered a couple of cappuccinos.

That evening we had drinks, a few games of pool and dinner at Tam Tams, eventually returning home at 12.30am to a chained front gate and a sleepy night porter who, after some sustained psssssssssssttting, eventually woke up along with the rest of the hotel.

21/1, 22/1, 23/1, 24/1 & 25/1

The next few days began to take a pattern. The weather was turning for the worse and we'd seen just about everything Hoi An had to offer, so our days were basically spent going down for breakfast, then back to our room for the morning to watch Australian Open tennis (with Tiger Tim choking yet again), then out to Hai's for our regular lunchtime fix of spring rolls and noodles, a bit of a wander, back to base for an afternoon film on HBO and out in the evening for dinner.

What didn't help things, was that the town was even sleepier than usual with the beginning of the TET festival, the most important date in the Vietnamese festival calendar where shops shut and families get together to celebrate the Lunar New Year with the hope of good fortune to come.

Some days it would pour down with rain all day so we were constantly being subjected to below-average movies starring Richard Gere prancing around as Sir Lancelot or Vin Diesel being all moody, broody and crap-actor-y (if that's a proper adjective?).

Our final night was spent in our room watching Spider-Man and eating pizzas and spring rolls (alright, alright) as the next morning our alarm clock would be set for 5.30am for a flight back south to Ho Chi Minh City, and hopefully some sunshine.

To round things off, Hoi An has to be the nicest town in Vietnam with the friendliest people, but, although the weather didn't help, eight days were a little too long and a long weekend break would have probably sufficed.

See you back in smoggy Saigon for some more wartime reminiscing.

The Good Driver & The Lady Driver

Footnote to avert suing or libel damages being incurred:
The above description in no way reflects the lady Captain in question as she was a very professional and capable pilot, as was Vietnam Airlines as a whole. That should do it.

Footnote to avert the world from thinking we're pigging out on fried spring rolls at every waking moment:
The Vietnamese spring rolls in question are not your usual deep fried Chinese examples, they're fresh prawn, spring onion, carrot, noodle and coriander wrapped in soft rice paper served with a sweet chilli dip. Deeeeeeeeelicious.
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