Thursday, February 25, 2010

Hanoi - a curious capital

I haven't been to many capital cities but what they all had in common is that they are the centre of all things commercial, financial and social in their nations. I didn't get that feeling in Hanoi. For me, Saigon is much more of a capital city. The feel of Hanoi isn't quite right. I'm not saying that Hanoi isn't nice, it is. Far superior to Saigon in terms of beauty, elegance and greenery. However, it's missing something that HCMC has in abundance. That's buzz.

The first thing to note is that we went over the Christmas period. Xmas isn't widely celebrated in Vietnam and there's no commercial drive, excitement or the overkill of garish decorations of the west. It's largely a couples holiday, where you would take that special someone for a nice meal followed by coffee. Others meet their friends, get drunk and sing karaoke at varying degrees of competence. Large and international companies close for the day, but most small businesses stay open. For most of the city it's business as usual.

Business in VN is a little strange in my eyes. Everyone seems to be in a hurry to achieve not a great deal. It's odd. The biggest of fuss is often made for the smallest of things. Most businesses are tiny. There are coffee places galour, numerous restaurants that only serve one or two dishes, tourist nick-knack stores, big supermarkets and of course motorbike repair workshops. With the exception of the supermarkets, I'm not sure how any of these small enterprises survive as they never seem to be busy. However, I guess it's partly to do with the fact a lot of people use the ground floor of their home for their business and they live upstairs. Still, I often wonder how they make ends meet....but they do.

Anyways, on to Hanoi. What is lacks in buzz, it makes up for in other ways. I'm going to talk about a few of the places to visit. Unfortunately I didn't get the chance to go to Sapa or Halam Bay which I've been told are amazing to visit. We only went to Hanoi on a Visa run before our trip to England. What we saw in Hanoi is more than achievable in a couple of days and in all honesty, I wouldn't have wanted to spend to much more time there as I felt attractions were somewhat limited. That being said, I think it would be a reasonable place to live if I had the range of social activities that I have in HCMC, which I'm sure I'd find with some local knowledge. So here were my 3 highlights.

1) The 'One Pillar Pagoda'

Beautiful isn't it! This is one of the main attractions in the city. As you'll soon learn, most of the highlights in Hanoi are centred around Ho Chi Minh's tomb. This pagoda is literally about 100 yards from the Mausoleum. It's essentially a tiny pagoda in a ridiculously idealic setting. Apparently it was originally built in 1049 and the French destroyed in during there occupation before being rebuilt. However, it remains one of Hanoi's treasures and is well worth a visit.

2) Ho Chi Minh's Tomb and the Presidential Palace


Uncle Ho is somewhat of a God here. He is visited by thousands if not millions of people each year and it marks a significant moment in a lot of people's life. The Mausoleum is made from granite and is apparently built similar to the memorial made for Lenin. It has a military honour guard, dressed in white who uphold the strict laws within the tomb. It's a little iry to walk around the body of an icon, and the obvious significance to the Vietnamese was lost on me. However you can't come to Hanoi and not go there. As is typical with most governmental or significant buildings in Vietnam, you can't take photos of the body but it lives in the memory.

Another thing you can't take pictures of is above! And that's the Presidential Palace. When I say you can't take a snap, please bare with me. Outside of the Palace, there's a big black gate which has an armed patrol. It seems that there job is purely to warn of tourists trying to take photos as the place seemed pretty devoid of people. However, if you buy tickets to the mausoleum you can get a clear view, which is closer than from the front gate, and take pictures from there. It's all very strange to me. However the grounds around the Palace and behind the tomb are quite a sight...


Unfortunately I don't have many good pictures. It was a somewhat overcast day and there were too many people about to get clear shots but it was a beautiful walk. The gardens are well maintained with an abundance of flowers, the lakes clean, and various temples and function rooms charming, quaint and well furnished. You could also see some of HCM's cars which I thought was a little strange.

3) Wedding Picture Park


Unfortunately I can't remember the name and I can't find my map but again, this park is not too far from HCM square. It's a beautiful park where couples go to get their pre wedding photo albums made. The lake makes an ideal setting for romantic pictures and a pleasant afternoon stroll or picnic. We saw about 9 couples taking their pictures, holding the ridiculously unnatural and quite frankly uncomfortable poses that the photographers demand of their clients. However, it's a good example of Hanoi's greenery and I wish it was in HCMC so for a few minutes I could escape the smog, fumes and traffic jams for an hour or two.

Some final thoughts

Hanoi is busy, yet not chaotic. The outskirts are designed for cars, which is certainly something that can't be said of HCMC where the roads are barely sufficient to support 4 wheeled transportation! Therefore the traffic in Hanoi flows pretty well. The lake which the centre is built around is also a nice distraction and pleasing on the eye.


Hanoi also has a lot less street vendors which riddle the streets in downtown Saigon. They are also less persistent than those in the South. The capital also feels more affluent. This is probably because of the wide boulevards and relative abundance of cars compared to HCMC. However it's difficult to compare as Hanoi is less densely populated, the roads are designed for cars and the government officials are based in the captial. Ho Chi Minions tend to show their wealth in their possessions and how lavishly they furnish their houses as their is no point in owning a flash car.

So.....

Affluence - Hanoi
Commerce/Industry - HCMC
Greenery/Beauty - Hanoi
Shopping - HCMC
Nightlife - HCMC
Tourist Attractions - A tie
Quality of life - Hanoi
Job Opportunities - HCMC

At the end of the day, it depends on what you want. I personally prefer Hanoi as a place to stay for the peace and tranquility. However, at this stage in my life, HCMC is by far the best option for employment, entertainment and socialising hence my assertion that Saigon is Vietnam's capital in disguise.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

London on the cheap

When we embark on going to our nation's capital, we often think it's going to cost an arm and a leg. Whilst it's certainly easy to drop a fortune, it's also easy to have a couple of days spending relatively little money. Let me tell you how...

The first thing to note about London is that a lot of the main attractions cost about £0! Pretty good don't you think! When tourists come to 'the Big Smoke' what do they want to see? Big Ben, The Houses of Parliament, Downing Street, The Horse Guard Parade, and Buckingham Palace to name but a few. What do all these things have in common? They're free!


Even better is that they're all very close together, easily walkable even for the least energetic or active of people. I'm not really one for spending hours looking at the outside of buildings so 20 minutes at each and I feel satisfied although I would've enjoyed spending longer
had it not been one of the coldest February's in my lifetime! We were also lucky enough to see a band regiment marching towards Buckingham Palace which was a highlight of the trip. The walk from Big Ben to Buckingham Palace took about 3 hours. We weren't walking at much more than a snail's pace as Hanh was taking in the views, buildings, costumes of the guards, the magnificence of the horses and the numerous parks, still eye catching in the midst of winter. From the Queen's abode we made our way to China town. Another stroke of luck meant that Lunar New Year was rapidly approaching and Soho was quite the sight!!


It also had an electric atmosphere, with vibrant colours and a vast array of Asian restaurants. We had lunch at a small Vietnamese place (for obvious reasons) before heading to the V&A museum at South Kensington Tube Station. Again...free (as is the Natural History). The V&A is emense. Much bigger than I expected. Although the fashion, art and iron work exhibitions arent' really my thing, I was extremely impressed with the number of items on view, their presentation and the time span covered. For anyone considering going, I would recommend it.

So far all I'd had to pay for (or would've had to pay for had 1. I not driven to just outside the congestion zone 2. Dad not paid for lunch) was a return bus ride to London with National Express, lunch and a tube pass for zones 1 and 2 for 2 days.

Before I went to London, Phil (a close friend of mine) advised me that I needed at 3 days to do half the things I wanted to do. He wasn't wrong. Had I not been in the fortunate position of being able to stay with him and Guillaume (another close friend) then even the 2 days we managed would've been a struggle on a tight budget. But lucky to have the friends I do, I didn't have to worry about accommodation. Anyway, Phil and G finished work and met us at a pub before proceeding to Pizza express. Fortunately there is a 2 for 1 deal on food if you have an Orange mobile so dinner didn't cost all that much. Furthermore, I've been informed that if you search around online, a lot of restaurants are offering such deals at various times of the week, presumably to beat off the recession. So all in all, I only had to add a couple of drinks and dinner onto the bill. Hardly the hit I expected my account to take.

The next day was a little more expensive as we wanted to see some of the attractions that you have to pay for. The first one is pictured above and was one of the highlights of my trip home. I have a passion for English history, particularly between 1300 to 1700 and the Tower of London features heavily in this period. Going inside the Tower turned me into a small child. I wanted to go everywhere, touch everything and all the other things excited toddlers do! However, the best thing about it is that National Rail offer 2 for 1 tickets to a whole bunch of attractions provided you've bought an overground ticket into London. I saved£17!! Bargain. As we were spitting distance from Tower Bridge we went there to. To go to the top of the bridge was £7 each but again, thanks to National rail, I used another trump card!

Unfortunately our time had run out and we had to go home mid-afternoon but we'd already covered a lot in two days. Next time I want to see the Dungeons, go up the London Eye and walk around St. James and Hyde Park. The Dungeons are effectively half price due to National rail (who I have a new found respect for), the parks are free with London Eye being the only thing I have to pay full price for!

This entry isn't intended as a guide to any one of London's multiple attractions. I haven't talked about how we saw Gordon Brown pull into Westminister, a blacked out vehicle driving away from Buckingham Palace with a police escort nor the ease at which you travel around the city but I just wanted to highlight that you don't have to remortgage your house to enjoy our capital. We had an amazing time and that was winter which isn't the best time to visit. Come the summer the parks, walking along the river and picnicking in Canary Wharf are all pleasant. London can be expensive if you want it to be, but you barely have to spend a penny to have a great time if the cash has stopped flowing!!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Phu Quoc - Paradise......


Sun, Sea, Waterfalls,, Sunsets and Dense Forest and all the seafood you can eat....welcome to Phu Quoc.

For those of you not in the know, PQ is a small island off the south of Vietnam. It's bang in the middle between Cambodia and Vietnam so I'm not sure why it's a territory of Nam but I'm sure Wikipedia will tell you if you're interested. Anyways, you can get there by boat or plane. The plane took about an hour from Saigon. As far as I know, there are very few routes into the Island (it may only be from SGN) but there are rumours they might open an international airport there which I sincerely hope they don't do as it'll destroy the island as the investors line up to destroy the landscape with crappy hotels.


So here's the east coast. Look good? Well it's great! Not a stone in sight (unlike the marvellous beaches in the south of England), clear blue sky and palm trees in the back ground. Please correct me if I've got the tree wrong, I don't pretend to have an interest in tree types, only that they look pretty. I hate sunbathing, and spend any length of time under the sun and you'll be red as a tomato within minutes, but walking along the beach after breakfast and dinner was extraordinarily pleasant, especially with the soft sea breeze.


As I don't really enjoy cooking myself on the beach, I went exploring. Phu Quoc has two or 3 waterfalls and whilst they're not the biggest you'll ever see, they're still beautiful. They're also situated in some of the less chartered parts of the island. This waterfall was off the only tarmacked road on the island, but the 2nd waterfall required us to drive down bumpy, dusty, red dirt roads. I thoroughly enjoyed it but can understand if not everyone shares my enthusiasm for it! More importantly, the location of the falls are sheltered from the sun (yay shade) and offers a small workout to get to as a wee walk is required to get there!


This bridge needs to be crossed get to one of the waterfalls. It's not very dangerous but the child in me did make me feel like Indiana Jones.

There are also several islands off Phu Quoc. 'Why leave the island that you've visited?' I hear you ask. Well let me tell you. I went on a snorkeling boat trip just off the Island. It cost $15 for 7 hours on the boat. A fantastic lunch was provided (various seafoods) and the views were just stunning. Take the picture below for example.


This is a secluded beach. It's a tiny beach (I swam across from the boat) but it's been untouched by us and for a tiny while, you could imagine being cut off from everything. It was a strange feeling but made me think about how we should make the most of these areas which become more scarce day by day. There was a variety of boat tours and diving tours available. I've heard the diving is quite good but I don't like going underwater so it doesn't interest me. I also struggle with snorkeling (head underwater again) but again I heard that there was a good variety of fish to see.

Traveling around Phu Quoc was also an adventure. There is only one tarmac road and that's from the airport to the main tourist area. The rest of the island is catered for by dirt roads.


And they're not too bad when it's dry. When it's wet it's a different story but we were lucky with the weather. Here you can also see the forest and the bizarre experience of driving through herds of cattle grazing. It was surreal at times but you really did feel in touch with nature. During the day we often drove around the island under the protection of the forest. Phu Quoc is also small enough to comfortably drive round in a day but you wouldn't want to be on a bike in the dark.


Well Phu Quoc is a fantastic getaway. If you wanted to unwind and recharge it's a place for you. If you're a beach person you'll love it. I'd highly recommend dragging yourself for a few hours everyday to see the roads, forest and waterfalls. At night take a walk along the beach and eat seafood at a place pictured above. It's ideal for couples but I'd happily go alone. There are plenty of bars (no real clubs) but it's not a yobby place. If you're short of ideas for a holiday then Phu Quoc is your answer. If they do go ahead and build the international airport PQ will lose it's identity so get there before!

Hanh and I went just before high season and it was neither too expensive nor were there too many people, but I hear that the prices do go much higher at peak times. However, I'll certainly be back....

The Wedding Party - October 24th, 2009

Before I told you about the legal side. Now for the wedding party.

In the UK, the legal side and wedding ceremony and reception is completed on the same day. As previously mentioned, the legal side in Vietnam is completed on a separate date (often several months different from) from the ceremony. In the UK the ceremony comprises of vows being taken in front of friends and family. This will happen at church or a registry office (a government building) before the wedding proceeds to a party hall for the reception. However in Vietnam, things are quite different. Let me talk you through it....

The Family Ceremony

The first thing to note is that this wasn't a completely traditional party since my family home is in England and unfortunately circumstances didn't allow them to attend so what I'm about to tell you isn't the traditional ceremony, just what we did. For those of you who are interested in the full ceremony, I'd be happy to tell you at a later date.

6 a.m. My alarm goes off. I wake up at the hotel I was staying at and I go downstairs to eat breakfast. Then I take a shower, shave and get dressed into my Ao Dai, which is the traditional Vietnamese dress for this part of the ceremony. As pictured, the groom wears blue and the bride wears red. I also have to admit it took rather a long time for me to put it on as it wasn't entirely obvious to me where each button and catch had to attach to.


8 a.m. I meet 9 of my male friends at the front of the restaurant. 7 of them are my 'Good Men'. Their role is to give 7 gifts to 7 of Hanh's friends. The gifts are usually fruits, jewelry, tea and wine. Will and Steve were the other two. They acted as my bestmen/household. Steve's role would be to ask Hanh's parents for permission on behalf of my family, and Will was my bestman though that role is rather decorative (rather than practical) in Vietnamese ceremonies.

8:10 a.m.
The cars come to pick us up. Steve, Will and I go in the first car and the others follow. It's only about a 5 minute drive to Hanh's house but it takes longer as in front of us is a camera guy recording the car journey to incorporate it into our Dvd. The cars stop about 20 metres from the house. Steve and Will go into Hanh's house....


Unfortunately I don't have any pictures to hand but Hanh's family were sat around this table, and on top of the case you can see in the back groud was a kinda shrine to the ancestors. This is used to show your respect to them rather than for worshipping as we would think. Will and Steve entered and asked permission for my marriage to their daughter and fortunately they agreed. By this time, the Good Men had been given their gifts to give to the girls, and had lined up in single file. Once her parents agreed, we were beckoned to come into her house, the 'death march' so to speak! Here, the good men lined up opposite one of the girls and the guys gave the girlies the gifts. This picture isn't from our wedding, but gives you an idea of what happened.


Here you can see, the gifts are on a tray and covered with a red cloth to be revealed later.

At this stage I have to add that there were a lot of pauses for photographs and the communication wasn't always great so we didn't really know what was going on. That's not all that uncommon here!

8:40 For anyone who was there, please don't hold me to these timings. I know I'm out but I sure can't remember when everything happened so please forgive me!! This was a very hot day, and on hot days what do we want? Ice cream, a cold beer and a fan or A/C if possible. Well ice cream wouldn't have looked great in photos, beer was coming later and we had a powercut. So we (the foreigners) were all baking hot! The family cemerony began at about this time. Firstly, Hanh came out from the kitchen, as whilst Steve asked for permission Hanh wasn't allowed in the room. Then I have to put earrings, a necklace, bracelet and finally the ring onto Hanh. Now for those of you who have never worn an earring, let alone put one in someone's ear, let me tell you its terrifying! So much so that I couldn't actually do it. I was sweating (heat) and fumbling about (fat fingers) and could get them in. In the end I just waited for someone else to do it for me. Apparently it's not the done thing, but I really didn't care all that much! And for the record, I'm never attempting to do that again! It's not right! If we were supposed to wear earrings God would've made us with holes in our ears!!!

Anyhows, Jewelry on, and we then had to offer a small cup of Vietnamese wine to the various relatives in the room. This small cup was no more than one of those small things that people use to protect their thumbs when they're sewing! (and before you say ought, I do know the word, I just don't know how to spell it!!) The wine was also pretty strong as I'm sure Steve will testify to. Most people just pretended to drink it for the photographer who by now had resumed a more important role than Hanh and I.

Next we have to bow 3 times facing the ancestor shrine, and then turn around to bow 3 times to everyone who was in attendance. Again, the photographer, who had already started to annoy me, asked us to hold the pose. After this we unvailed the gifts for all to see. Considering I was supposed to have bought them, I was just as intrigued as everyone else. That's right, I just contributed the funds and the gifts were bought for me. I learned that I'd bought wine, fruits and teas. Hmmm tea. I think there a few bits we had to do after, but I can't remember them. All I remember were a few more photos and the family ceremony was bought to a close at somewhen close to 9:45 am. Relieved, as to be honest it had dragged on, we could stand at ease. My friends returned to the hotel to shower and change, and Hanh and I made our way to the restaurant and the wedding party was due to begin at 11....

The quest for a drink


Weddings are supposed to be the happiest day of your life and the groom is supposed to be one of the most important people in it. Or so I thought. Well try telling the restaurant we had our party at. We probably arrived at about 10:15 in plenty of time to make sure that everything was in order. And it appeared so. There was drink everywhere. The tables were nicely laid out, the food was ready and more importantly, I was parched. So in a room with hundreds of beers and pepsis it shouldn't have been hard to get a drink.

Well apparently no one was willing to give me a drink. I asked anybody who could speak English (at that time it was only Hanh) and she asked anyone who could speak Vietnamese (everybody) to get me a pepsi. 30 minutes later and we're still asking. I was getting a bit angry since I was paying for the whole thing and no one would get me a drink!! Tip for those of you coming to Nam, don't expect customer service, it doesn't exist! Ok I'm being a bit unfair, but you see my point. Eventually Hanh's dad went next door (somewhere not related to the party) and bought me a pepsi. I was a happy bunny again.

The Wedding Party


11 a.m. Those of you familiar to Korea know that everyone always arrives 15 minutes late. This is known as Korean time. Now for social engagements, this is punctual compared to a lot of the people I know in Vietnam. Therefore, we didn't expect people to arrive until 12. We were wrong. At 11 a flood of people arrive and in traditional custom we stood by the door to welcome everyone in, with of course some photos....


When you come to a Vietnamese wedding you usually sign a big card to show you came and you leave money for the couple in a box at the door. The Vietnamese tend to give money at a wedding instead of gifts and that money is usually used to cover the cost of the party. Once most of the guests had arrived we went back stage to change. Hanh looked stunning in a gorgeous white dress we had made and of course I looked devilishly handsome in my suit. Time for the party to begin.

Midday. All the guests had near enough arrived. 370 in all. And I probably knew about 100 of them. Hanh claims that she knew everyone but I'm not convinced about that! As you may or may not know, the parents of the bride and groom invite a lot of their friends and colleauges to their child's wedding which is very different from our way of doing things back home. This is where the fun starts....


You see the platform at the front, well this was a moving aisle. When Hanh and I were introduced to the guests, we were at the back of the room (similar to how the bride enters down the aisle) and we walked to the platform. I was really expecting it but it started moving. We didn't really know what to do so we just stood waving at everyone. It was pretty cheesy but also quite funny. Once we reached the front Hanh's parents were called to the front, along with my manager, who was their on behalf of me. I would like to add at this point, I didn't really have a clue what was going on as the MC who was supposed to be speaking English was awful. He didn't even get my name right and I feel a bit aggreived at having to pay him. As my students correctly pointed out I should have got one of them to do the English part. I would've done if I know how bad he was going to be!!!

After Hanh's parents and Claudette had said a few words Hanh and I poured champagne over some flutes (it made smoke, purely for the pictures of course) and went over to the over side to cut the cake.

The cake below looks good doesn't it. I'm sure your mouth is watering just looking at it. However it's not real. There is a little cream at the top to fool the guests that you're cutting into real cake but it's for the pictures. It's a shame, I like cake.


Doing the rounds

After cutting the 'cake', Hanh and I had a drink together in front of everyone in the 'lovers toast' form where you link arms and look somewhat ridiculous! After that we went round every table to take pictures with all the guests. If you remember we had 370 guests. 10 people on each table (Vietnamese custom). That's 37 tables. We need to take 2 pictures with each table and make a toast each time. Now for my culture. When you toast you have take a swig of your drink. That's at 74 swigs of beer. In Vietnamese culture, if your invited to drink with an elder, you have to match what they drink. Hanh's uncles like Vietnamese wine (which is a cross between Vodka and Whiskey) so by the end of the toasts I was a little tipsy to say the least. Also, I hadn't eaten since breakfast, and everyone else was eating in front of us. Also, the bossy photographer was still directing the show....well not for much longer. Half way round the tables I decided I wanted to do things in my own time, it was our day, and not some dwarf photographer (no offence Gimli). So I started taking my time by taking countless shots of whiskey with the inlaws! Happy days.

Disco

More culture. In Vietnamese weddings, the guests usually stay for the food, leave their money and go. No dancing...no fun....no smiles....boring right?!!! Well one of Hanh's friend is a DJ at some of the better places in town and he agreed to bring his gear with him. After a few beers and the food had finished he setup and played the cheesy floor fillers that you would hear at any good student union club. All of my friends (maybe about 60) and Hanh's university friends soon cleared some the tables to the side and dancing!!! Woohoo! It was great! Hanh's parents didn't really understand what was happening, but quickly realised it was a good thing and everyone was having a wonderful time. We'd finally finished the photos (still no food as we wanted to dance and I think it was all gone - I'm told it was delicious but I can't vouch for it) and could let our hair down. The less said about the quality of dancing the better!!

Finally, as people were starting to leave, we went to the door to thank everyone for coming and by 3 the restaurant was empty and that was that! I have to admit, I'm looking forward to other peoples weddings as they're more fun than your own. Also, the only wedding I've ever been hungry at is my mine....not sure it's supposed to work like that but nevermind!

A guide to small town Britain (in the south)

Hello!! Did you miss me? I know it's been a while since I've blogged but I've been lazy, preoccupied and ridiculously busy. With any luck I'll post regularly for the foreseeable but time will time. I'm currently sat in front of the TV watching the Winter Olympics. I'm not really that big a fan of it, but my body clock has been thrown widely off by the 22 hour door to door trip from my parents house in the UK to my current residence in Vietnam.

Anyhows, my trip to the UK was awesome and it was even better as it was Hanh's first trip abroad. She also met my family and friends for the first time. For me, it was wonderful to see those who are most important to me of course, but it was also lovely to experience my homeland in a different way. You see, Hanh had few preconceptions about what England would be like. And believe me when I tell you that Vietnam and England are worlds apart. The differences are about as wide ranging as they come - developed vs developing country, Eastern vs Western city planning and architectural style, language, customs, climate and transport to name but a few. However, it was this freshness that allowed me to view my country in a new way. Places that I took for granted now have an amazing appeal that they never had before. So let me tell you about the UK through the eyes of a tourist....

New Milton

Let's start with where I grew up. Milly is a place where people bring up a young family or retire to. It's not a place for ambitious young graduates, for those looking for a vibrant nightlife or shopaholics, but it is what it is. That is to say a safe and pleasant family area. It's also very well situated between Bournemouth and Southampton, coast and forest. I was told before I came that there now a lot of closed shops and even more charity shops than the considerable number there were before. This is an accurate reflection. New Milton also felt a bit like a ghost town. On the occasions I walked down the high street there was a lack of buzz that you'd find in cities or thriving towns but I enjoyed being somewhere with no traffic, clean sheets and a slow pace. It's certainly the opposite to my daily life in Vietnam is, or Seoul was, and it was refreshing. I'm not recommending Milly as a place to visit, you'd be bored with nothing to see, but I just wanted to paint a little picture of what Hanh was walking into.

Christchurch and Lymington

These two towns straddle New Milton. I'd say Christchurch has a more historical feel due to the old abbey, ruins and old style houses around the priory whereas Lymington feels slightly more affluent being situated by the sea.


Although I only live a short 10 minute drive from Christchurch, I've never properly visited the Abbey. I learned that it used to be a monastery back in the day before their dissolution in the reign of Henry VIII. Hanh and went inside and the beauty of the old churches in England is clear for all to see. The painted windows, tall ceilings, carved sculptures and wonderful architecture was staggering and it a great example of why we should be proud that our country has managed to preserve and keep available our history. I can't believe that I hadn't been there sooner, but I'd strongly advise anyone who hasn't been to one of the old churches/cathedrals to go a marvel at the architectiure of the time. By the prior was also the ruins of Christchurch castle which was a stronghold of the royalists during the English Civil War. Now I know ruins are just a bunch of rocks, but I for one am glad that we haven't cleared them to build flats or yet another badly designed office block. Keeping our relics keeps the character of our country and our historic sites are unique as in my short time in Asia, I've never really seen anything predating 1900.


Allow me to apologise now that most of the pictures will have Hanh in them. Please believe me when I tell you that it's almost impossible to keep her out of them.

As with most towns (in my opinion) Christchurch is worth a couple of hours but no more. Whilst the priory grounds, river and ruins are nice enough to walk around there's little else in the way of interest. There isn't an overwhelming selection of restaurants or shops but the bottom of town has kept a bit of historical character which certainly appeals to me. No thrills or spills but it's nice enough nevertheless.

With this, I'd like to add that I believe the same to be true of most places. I never really see the point of visiting towns or cities because once you've seen one you've seen them all. Well ok, that's not strictly true, allow me to explain. Towns/cities in a particular town region or country generally grew up on essentially the same principles. Towns in southern England generally have an old church, perhaps an old town hall, some Victorian (or older) style houses and a town square containing the usual clothing, jewelry and fast food chains with a smattering of pubs and banks. And don't get me wrong, I like them. In fact I far prefer them from anything that I've experienced abroad but they all feel the same (really selling it aren't I?!).

Lymington is similar. Instead of having a town square, it has a long high street. It has less chain stores and more small family business than most towns I've been to. At the bottom of the high street there's a small cobbled street that leads to the sea front. On the front you'll find a nice selection of the rich and famous' boats and yachts. As of yet I don't have one but in the future maybe I'll join them. As I said before, go for an afternoon but only if you happen to be in the area. I wouldn't make a special visit there but that's just me.


One thing about Lym, don't park in the Waitrose car park at the top of town! It's a supermarket car park but they didn't use to check your parking so you could effectively use it as a free car park. However, that's changed and I got a ticket for using it so don't say I haven't warned you!

Mudeford

Again, Mudeford is no more than a 10 minute drive. I guess I'd call it a village/residential area on the coast more than anything else. There's no more than a handful of shops and the only real attraction is the beach. Now, before anyone says anything, let me clarify what beaches in the south of England are like. To shatter some illusions, there are rolling white sandy beaches. There are a few nice beaches but they aren't particularly long and in the height of summer you're lucky to find the area the size of a postage stamp to sling a blanket down. What you'll generally find is either stony beaches or eroding cliffs. Now, I love the cliffs as they're beautiful to look at and nice to walk along. I generally find it a very nice place to think.

Mudeford doesn't have cliffs. It doesn't have white sandy beaches. It has some sand which is littered with rocks. It's relatively busy in the summer and a place where dog owners take there dogs for a walk in the winter. It has a path along side so you can walk easily and it's a nice place to go after a big Sunday dinner. You also get great views of the Isle of Wight and the coast line about Hegistbury Head. Again, visit if you happen to be in the area but it's not an essential must see place. Before you continue reading, I'm not writing this as a tourist's guide of places to go. It's more of an honest assessment of what's near where I live.

Salisbury and Stonehenge

This is where I risk feeling the wrath of my good friend James. Now, Salisbury is a small city which boosts a particularly nice cathedral. I might be talking rubbish, and I can't be bothered to check online, but I believe that it's spire is the tallest on the Island. Unfortunately when Hanh and I went they were doing work on the north side of the cathedral so our view was spoilt by scaffolding. However, as we were walking around the grounds I was felt with awe with the architecture and you could certainly sense the presence that the building has on the surrounding area.


Salisbury has also managed to maintain its history. There are a lot of old style buildings and the central part of town is free of ugly tower blocks (hopefully J won't contradict me) The usual chain stores can be found but shopping here is better than the other places I've mentioned so far (not that it's that difficult but I thought I should mention it). However, short of the Cathedral there's not too much of interest. Salisbury is nice, and I believe is a commuter town. It's certainly affluent and is another great area to bring up a family (to be fair I think most places in the South central and South West are) and it definitely worth a visit.

However, Stonehenge isn't. You might find this surprising as I've talked a little about how I little that we've kept our history but the interest and fascination about the mystery rocks still baffles me. So, they were transported and errected at a time when it was difficult to move heavy objects vast distances but big deal, right? I also don't agree with having to pay to see them. What do they do? They just sit there. They don't talk, don't move and they're not even colourful. We had a quick look for a couple of minutes (it was snowing and we were cold) but I really wouldn't bother with it unless you happen to drive past. Infact, driving past them is all you really need to do as it's not as if you get anything more from it than you would if you got out of the car. At least the parking was free :-)


Well the best thing about these places is that:

1) They're not too busy and very pleasing on the eye, far from the concrete ugliness of some cities (e.g. Coventry)
2) If you have a car they're very accessible and easy to get to
3) In the towns you get a bit of a sense of our history. Not much, but enough to remind you of what Britain was like back in the day
4) Finally, it's my home

In the coming days I intend to write about my highlights of my trip home and a bit about London. For now I just wanted to satisfy my need to write about home, which for the first time I've managed to appreciate fully for the first time.