Posts from the “Weekending” Category

Best places to drink Champagne in Hong Kong – 5 bottles in 24 hours.

I’ve been inspired by the sunshine streaming into my study today and the glorious site of the islands on the horizon across a deep blue sea. This post originally appeared on Lifestyle Asia last year, but I never uploaded it to Caustic Candy.  Once again, huge thanks to Debra Meiburg for her fantastic picks.

Forget perching atop a bar stool sipping bubbly in your Choos, the best places in Hong Kong to share a bottle of Champagne require a little forethought, a cooler bag and some sensible flats to reach (don’t expect photos of these locations here I have no intention of spoiling the fun of discovering these places for the first time).

Each of these spots is best to visit at a specific time of day, and so I thought it appropriate to enlist the help of an expert and find five special Champagnes that would match perfectly.

When I say expert, what I really mean is Master of Wine and all round superstar Debra Meiburg, and I can’t thank her enough for taking the time out of her busy schedule to carefully select some truly unusual and special wines.

If you haven’t heard of Debra, where have you been? She is one of only two Masters of Wine in the whole of Asia, and apart from being an educator, speaker and journalist, she also has her own TV show Taste the Wine which you can catch on Cathay’s inflight entertainment.

1. Long Ke Wan, Sai Kung

When: Morning

Champagne: Pommery Summertime Blanc de Blancs NV

I think the best way to do Long Ke Wan is to arrive on foot and leave by speedboat.

Going to this beach should be done on a whim when the skies are clear as the view into the bay will be at its best (I’m thinking summer with its maritime airstream).

It’s great to get here by mid-morning as the sun will sparkle off the sand and bring out the colours of the sea. With the right weather, it’s breathtaking.

Have a taxi take you to the very far end of the East Dam at High Island Reservoir. At the end of the road there is only one path up the hill, so scurry up. At the top there is a short saddle, and then suddenly below you is the perfect bay of Long Ke Wan.

Descend the hillside through the buddhist pines to the beach to enjoy some of the softest, whitest sand in Hong Kong. The horseshoe  bay gets popular at weekends with motor cruisers, but mid-week or even just mid-morning it’s invariably deserted. Make sure to pre-arrange a speedboat to come and take you back to Sai Kung Town. It’s the quickest way back to civilisation, especially after a few glasses of bubbles. I get my lifestyle manager at Ten to organise this kind of thing for me — I think it, they manifest it.

Long Ke Wan - Caustic Candy

2. Hor Lan Geng, Mid-Levels

When: Afternoon

Champagne: Vouette et Sorbé Saignée de Sorbe Rosé NV

One of my favourite paths on Hong Kong island Hor Lan Geng is known to some as Snake Path and to many others as Dutch Path. Winding through the trees above Bowen Road with kilometre long sections with not a splash of concrete underfoot, the path connects Magazine Gap Reservoir with Wan Chai Gap Road.

Slip away from the office and get a taxi to drop you off in the water work’s road opposite The Harbour View, 11 Magazine Gap Road.

Walk past the playground and covered reservoir to the far end where you will see a tiny path winding into the trees. Follow this path until you come out onto the concrete road some 20 minutes later and around the start of this section you will find two or three gaps in the trees where you can sit and swing your legs over the edge and enjoy stunning views over Victoria Harbour.

There is nothing quite like being in the jungle, and yet looking out over one of the most spectacular modern cityscapes in the world, especially when you know that all of those offices below are crammed with people beavering away.

Carry on until the end of the path and you will hit the crazy steepness of Wan Chai Gap Road. It’s a 100 metre haul to the top where you can grab a taxi straightaway, or go and enjoy an ice-cream at Wanchai Gap Road Playground (avoid the coffee, it tastes like pee).

Snake Path is also a brilliant place to watch Harbour Fireworks from.  You’ll still need to arrive an hour or two early to get a good spot, but it’s well worth it.

Snake Path Caustic Candy

3. Sham Wat Wan, Lantau

When: Sunset

Champagne: De Sousa & Fils Cuvée des Caudalies Brut NV

For sunset, you have to be west-facing, and so we may as well go as far west as possible and pretty much as far back in time as possible to enjoy the next bottle on the sea wall at Sham Wat Wan on Lantau.

Again, this is a bit of an adventure and may mean you having to bribe the taxi driver another HK$100 to take you and wait.

To reach Sham Wat Wan by car (you can walk from Tung Chung or Tai O but it takes too long in my book for this specific endeavour), the taxi will turn left off the road that leads to Ngong Ping and the Big Buddha. You will snake down the side of Lantau peak for about 15 minutes until you find yourself in the village of Sham Wat.

It’s a very old fishing village, where inhabitants dig for clams at low tide, grow their own fruit and vegetables, and farm oysters in the bay.

With the pollution from the airport and the factories of the PRC you can count on a stunning sunset, and, if you are brave enough, you can enjoy one of the famous oyster omelettes that the two village restaurants serve. It’s difficult to find a more chilled out, old-school spot in Hong Kong, and the locals are super welcoming.

Sham Wat Wan Caustic Candy

4. Rock pools, above Ngau Kwo Tin, Lantau

When: Nighttime
Champagne: Taittinger Nocturne NV

Staying on Lantau for this next bottle, there’s nothing quite so delicious as skinny dipping in a rock pool on a hot and humid night with some good crystal-wear and an ice-cold bottle of Champagne.

My favourite pool is above Tai O at the end of a waterworks road that begins just below the Li Ka Shing funded Kwun Yam temple. You have to choose your seasons for rock pools, and the hot, rainy season is best as pools are likely to be full.

To be safe you shouldn’t really swim in them for 24 hours after heavy rain as you don’t want to be drowned by a flash flood or crushed by a landslide of boulders that sometimes get shifted in the rainy season. So exercise some common sense.

Get the taxi to drop you off in the car park on the right soon after the entrance to the Kwun Yam temple. Cross the road and follow the Water Supplies Department track for about 25 minutes to its end. There you will find a waterfall whose pool has been dammed making a lovely swimming hole. Set up your hurricane lamps and citronella coils and while away a couple of hours in one of the most secret infinity pools in Hong Kong. For those who can’t drive on Lantau, there is now the option of making a night of it by staying in the utterly charming Tai O Heritage Hotel in the old colonial police station. The establishment has dinky rooms but they beautifully furnished, and having Tai O to yourself in the morning before the hoards arrive is delightful.

Rock Pool Caustic Candy

5. Mount Davis Battery, Pok Fu Lam

When: Dawn

Champagne: Cedric Bouchard Inflorescence Blanc de Noirs

After a hard night’s partying, you need somewhere convenient but spectacular to watch the sunrise. For me, it’s at the summit of Mount Davis on top of the battery.

You have a wonderful view across most of Hong Kong, a fascinating network of military buildings to mooch around and some great spaces to lie down and watch the sky turn from night to day.

It’s a blissfully quiet moment in a busy city. Ask the taxi to take you to Mount Davis Youth Hostel and pay him to wait for you, otherwise you will have to wait for the minibus service to start (not a terribly sophisticated way to end this venture). You will see an incredibly steep concrete “road” continuing another 50m upwards and you just use the steps at the side to walk to the top.

Cross the huge open space (keeping left) that really should be used to host outdoor music festivals, and at the far end you will see the battery.

Clamber on top of the complex and find a comfortable spot to enjoy the view of Hong Kong coming alight; more beautiful than any laser light show. If you go at the weekend you may be disturbed (in every sense of the word), by the Airsoft brigade who use the battery as one of their battlegrounds. They aren’t usually there at dawn, but try to restrain yourself and not point out where their enemies are hiding if they happen to be there.

Mount Davis Battery Caustic Candy

These are some of my favourite spots in Hong Kong, so go and find them to enjoy.

Anantara Dream – Luxe cruising in Bangkok?

Review:

Anantara Dream’s is a funny old offering: some of the most expensive river-cruising accommodation in South East Asia, but on what you usually think of as one of the least picturesque rivers in the region.

Although the first day is spent sliding past some of Bangkok’s more industrial areas, I didn’t find that to be a bad thing, as it was absolutely fascinating to how the Chao Phraya is such an important communications route for Thailand, and to watch a bit of everyday life along the way.

I also quickly realised that we would never have got round to visiting all the sites we did on this tour if we’d just done them as day trips from Bangkok. The likes of the Royal Barge Museum and the Bang Pa In summer palace are a lot more interesting than they sound, and although we visited  more than six temples and monasteries in just 72 hours, I was only just on the verge of temple-fatigue.

Anantara Dream

Concept:

Anantara Dream is a two-cabined 55ft converted teak rice-barge that you charter exclusively for a 3 day/2 night cruise from Bangkok to the erstwhile capital of Ayutthaya. Along the way you visit a number of temples, markets and palaces, eat on board, and sleep tied up along the side of the river. All the while you are looked after by the three-man crew – a host, helmsman and chef.

 

Interior Anantara Dream

Accommodation:

Fifty-five feet is plenty big enough for four guests and three crew to live on very happily. The whole boat is wood floored and wood pannelled. Up top there is an open viewing deck that leads into a large lounge area with a barrelled roof. The eves come well down so that even if it rains you won’t be soaked, and when it’s very sunny you are still shaded when sitting on the sofas placed around the sides.

The two cabins downstairs are similarly sized with big, comfortable beds, large windows, traditional artifacts and furnishings, air-con, dimmer switches etc, and then downstairs again, in the bowels of the boat, you have the ensuite bathroom.

The cabins were really delightful, and certainly everything that I expected they should be.

I have to admit though, that when I first got on board I was a little bit peeved at the slight shabbiness of the upper deck. The pictures on the website gallery are true to life, but up close some of the wood is quite scuffed and there are stains on the sofa cushions. Both these issues are so easily fixed that I was quite annoyed that the Anantara hadn’t bothered to. When you are paying upwards of US$1,300 per person for a two night trip, I think you can expect the cushions to be clean!

However, that is literally the only complaint I have. Everything else about the trip was superb.

Service:

Johnny was our host, Witiya was our Chef and Milky was our helmsman and these three guys were just brilliant.

Johnny was an absolute fountain of information about Thai history and culture, and was super-willing to answer all of our questions about Thailand in general, ghost stories in particular and himself as well.

He took us to be blessed by the head of a monastery that we moored beside on the first night, and had organised gifts for us to offer in thanks for letting us stay there. He showed us how to fold lotus lilies, which we then bound together and took to offer at another temple later in the day. He also helped us haggle for goods in Koh Kred’s market, and took us on walks and around some of the lesser temples we visited.

All of this could sound very contrived, especially as I have an almost pathological dislike of guided tours, but because we were such a tiny group, and Johnny’s enthusiasm to show us his culture so sincere, we really had an awesome time, and even Mr H finally got into his flower arranging, although in a rather competitive way…

Finally there was Milky our captain who was always ready to answer our questions about what we could see along the river banks and about the river traffic itself. After hours of driving up or downstream he would then help Wity prepare dinner.

If you want to experience Thai service at its best it would be difficult to beat this team.

Tea time Anantara DreamFood:

Having a personal chef for three days cooking some really, really good Thai food was a complete treat. We had to ask for less food by the end of the first day as we were overwhelmed by the quantities of dishes coming out of the galley. It was our guests’ first time to Thailand and I couldn’t have been more happy with the food that they were introduced to. It was traditional Thai fare, and a little easy on the chili, but the variety, quality and care taken to produce it was impressive. Our guests loved it.

Wity gave us a cookery lesson too on the final day, so we made a nahm prik and a prawn and green mango salad with him that formed part of our lunch.

Excursions:

Anne was our expert guide for all the main sites we visited like Wat Arun, the royal barge museum, Wat Panancherng, Ayutthaya and the Bang Pa In summer palace. She was hilarious. Not only knowledgable and engaging but had a really cheeky sense of humour that made our time with her a lot of fun. These on-shore tours were organised by Exotissimo and they did a great job. I can highly recommend using them across SE Asia, (we used them again for a day trip out of Hanoi later in the trip).

Scenery:

It takes all of the first day to really get out of Bangkok’s cityscape, and there is a good deal of industry and housing along the riverbanks. It’s not exactly picturesque, but it’s fascinating to see the day-to-day life on the river. From mid-morning on the second day you are out in the countryside so you feel much more in the rural rhythm of Thailand.

Chao Phraya

Summary:

The trip was definitely worth the money. To begin with, when I got on board I did wondered what we had paid so much money for as I’d been totally focussed on how opulent I was expecting the vessel to be and it wasn’t quite there. But by the time lunch was served and we’d already visited a couple of sites I was completely won over because our hosts were fantastic and the food brilliant.

Floating around on a boat is a lovely way to spend a few days around Bangkok. As our guests were visiting three countries and four cities in two weeks I didn’t want to subject them to very long road trips or more internal flights when we were in Thailand. I needed to find something close to Bangkok to while away a few days.

I also knew it was going to be ridiculously hot in April, and so to be able to see so much at low speed and low impact, with ice-cold towels permanently on-hand, this tour was perfect for us.

Price:

Approx US5,500 (THB170,000). This exclusive charter includes two nights accommodation for four people. about one zillion meals and three days of guided tours and activities including entrance fees. Soft drinks were also included in the price, so we only had to pay for our wine or beer with dinner as we had brought our own Hendricks for some top quality sundowners.

Find out all about the tour at www.bangkok-cruises.anantara.com

The Golden Silk, Hanoi – Elegance in Exclusive Luxury my arse…

Review:

I found the website to the new Golden Silk Hotel in Hanoi back in February. It was yet to open, but from the website it looked as though it might finally be the breakthrough boutique hotel that Hanoi so desperately needs, and I was all for trying it.

If money isn’t a concern and you just want to stay somewhere small, stylish and 4* or 5* in Hanoi, it is utterly impossible.

The options at the deluxe end for a quick weekend break are:

  1. The Sofitel Metropole‘s Historic Wing – very pleasant, but unless you stay in one of the history soaked suites, ultimately it’s just like any other 5* hotel. The rooms have been refurbed to the point of losing their historic feel.
  2. The Sofitel Metropole’s Opera Wing – pleasant, but modern with no real connection with the older areas of the hotel, so could be any Sofitel in any city in the world.
  3. The Hilton Opera – pleasant, modern, again could be any Hilton hotel in any city in the world.

The Metropole has a lovel swimming pool and landscaped courtyard, so definitely rates higher than the Hilton and is a very nice hotel, but it has somehow lost most of its former charm in the refurbishment, which is a great shame, (oo, and don’t eat at Spices Garden)

There are other 5* hotels in Hanoi, but none of them are within easy walking distance of the Old Quarter which is where you want to spend most of your time poking around, so aren’t very convenient for tourists.

The next level down in price are the raft of Hanoi’s 3* boutique townhouse hotels. These include the Luxe Guide recommended  Church, and the Zephyr  (no idea why these two in particular, they don’t seem to offer much to me), and whilst all of them try to deliver an international standard of styling, quality, amenities and service, none of them actually manage it.

Plus, if you want to stay in a decent room at any of these hotels, it’s going to set you back upwards of US$100, (all their cheapest rooms are well under US$100), and it starts making more sense to just suck it up and go to the Metropole.

Under this level, are the plethora of small, honest to goodness 2* and 3* townhouse hotels, that are just as comfortable and have the same amenities as their ’boutique’ brethren, but with none of the deluded aspiration.

Find one in a quiet spot (I’ve had a lot of luck with a number of the Prince Hotels over the years), and you’ll enjoy family style service and clean rooms at great value.

The Golden Silk is unforunately yet another example of that merry middle band of boutique hotels that promise luxury and barely deliver anything beyond necessity, (i.e. four walls, a bed and a basin). Here’s my take.

Service:

This hotel had been open barely six weeks when we stayed and so I didn’t expect much of the service.  It was horrendous though – painfully slow, staff who weren’t empowered to make decisions when faced with a problem to be solved, and no managers around in the evenings or at the weekend to sort out such problems personally. We spent much of our time forcing the staff to ring the managers for their input when there was an issue.

Weird to stay in a hotel where the staff thought that their managers’ leisure time was more important than their guests’.

The staff need training, and I’m sure that the service will improve when they get it. Unfortunately the rest of the problems with the hotel will not improve without a complete refurbishment, or maybe a few days with a bulldozer…

Rooms:

The bathrooms: Let’s start at the design travesty of the bathrooms and get one thing clear. For all those idiots à l’étranger who post on Trip Advisor and think that a separate bath and shower are the very quintessence of sophistication: it’s not, it’s a basic human right. Any hotel that describes itself as luxury and then makes you clamber into the bath just to get clean deserves a rating of zero. The Golden Silk has actually managed to screw this up even further by installing showers that spray water everywhere but the bath, and so unless you dam the edges with towels you end up with a flooded bedroom.

Not content with designing a bathroom with merely safety hazards to negotiate, the Golden Silk has gone one step beyond in the silly stakes and inexplicably, (but like a growing number of its Asian contemporaries who can’t afford switchable smart glass), erected a clear glass wall to separate bathroom from bedroom…and then plonked the loo in full view of the bed.

Although there is a “modesty” blind of sorts it covers both the wall and door, so it’s impossible to get in and out without hoisting and lowering said blind on each visit.

I just don’t understand the f**king stupidity of the interior designers. It’s not just the fact that I don’t want my beloved to inadvertently catch a glimpse of me straining on the pot; what about when one of us needs to visit the bathroom in the night? There is no way to not disturb the other person unless we start wearing bloody headlamps to clamber around the room. The bathrooms are so awful that I wouldn’t stay here again just because of them.

Golden Silk Hotel, Hanoi

Can you see the similarity?

Right -onto the rest of the bedroom.

The styling: Hotel marketing 101 suggests that you don’t lie about the rooms on your website. None of the rooms (and I looked in four) looked anything like the renderings on the website. Shiny floors, square rooms not rectangular, no rugs, no dimmer switches on the lighting etc, etc, meant that I couldn’t actually get the room to look even close to what was displayed on the website. I was standing scrunched in the corner to take my photo, so the perspective in the hotel’s rendering is way out, and the Studio Suites are far smaller than suggested.

The noise: It seems rather a large screw-up that in the Golden Silk the more expensive your room, the noisier it becomes. The “better” rooms have balconies, are larger and apparently have more furniture. Unfortunately they have the same bathrooms and hanging rails and  are also on the front of the hotel.

Hang Gai is pretty much the busiest street in the Old Quarter, so the noise is appalling. Plus, the windows and doors don’t fit, so though they are double-glazed, they are pointless.

Even if I didn’t nearly die of shame every time I had to take a pee, I can’t recommend anyone to stay in a room above Luxury class (which are all at the back of the hotel), because of the cacophony of constant traffic and early morning loudhailers they will be subjected to.

The terraces: None of the rooms have terraces. They have balconies wide enough for a table and chairs, but there are none provided, so it’s pointless to have a balcony.

Again, do not stretch the truth on your marketing material, over-promising and under-delivering is unforgivably bad business practice.

The wardrobe: There was no wardrobe. Simply a couple of short hanging racks along part of the bathroom wall. A complete mess and somewhat in contradiction to the idea of luxury in a hotel.

Powerpoints: The one powerpoint in the luxury room took five minutes to find and was behind a heavy bedside lamp that had to be moved to access it. There was one powerpoint in the Studio Suite in the same position and another thankfully near a shelf in a more convenient place.

Bedside lamps: The bedside lamps in all the rooms had their switches hanging off the far edge of the bedside table making it impossible to reach whilst actually in bed.

Electicity and Water Pressure: Hanoi does seem to have a bit of an issue with the stability of its water pressure and electricity, so it was no worse here than at any other of the townhouse hotels I’ve stayed in. Don’t expect hot water on the higher floors by 9:30am.

Beds: Surprisingly the beds were not rock solid, and were actually pretty comfortable. In the luxury rooms though the beds are so wide that there isn’t really space for much else. However on the plus side, if you are six foot five inches tall you can sleep across the bed, which makes it one of the best hotels for tall people in the whole of the capital.

Summary:

If my expectations had been managed properly before I arrived  - a photo of the bathroom, realistic descriptions of rooms, and photos not renderings, then I think my impression of the hotel would have been more forgiving. But having been dumped in a room in a lower category without being told when I checked in, and then at every turn when I wanted to do something in the room being faced with inconvenient and downright stupid design, I’m not in the mood to be charitable. The Golden Silk provides a brilliant case study of pretty much everything you shouldn’t do when building a new hotel.

So, once again  I shall have to make my way back to the Metropole or the Prince until someone in Hanoi finally comprehends and then manifests a Boutique Luxury Hotel. I’ve been travelling to the city for seventeen years, and I’d have hoped by now that the hoteliers here would have caught up with the rest of Indochina. Heavens to Betsy! If Laos can manage a dazzling array of small luxury hotels why the darnation can’t Vietnam?

Location: 109-111 Hang Gai Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, Vietnam, Tel: 84-4-3928 6969

Website: www.goldensilkhotel.com

A handful of Hanoi Restaurants

Review:

So, we went to Hanoi for a quick getaway with some guests last weekend. Apart from the irritation of having to fly out of the ridiculous Gate 500 hub in the middle of what feels like Hong Kong Airport’s runway, the Dragonair flights leaving at 18:00 on a Friday and returning at 19:50 on Sunday were perfectly timed.

We arrived at our hotel in Hoan Kiem just after 20:00; well in time for dinner and a night out. We therefore were able to fit in two dinners and two lunches before jumping back on the plane to Hong Kong on Sunday evening.

Hanoi

Here were our meals:

The Spices Garden, Sofitel Metropole

Rapacious prices, mediocre food, dreadful service.

I don’t understand how the best and most expensive hotel in Hanoi is happy to run a restaurant this dismal.

I usually get my restaurant advice from the boards on Chowhound, but there is precious little on the Vietnamese capital, so I relied on a website called Rusty Compass that described the joint as “for those wanting to gently ease into local cuisine off the street in a 5 star space…a very nice upscale Vietnamese cuisine experience.”

Sounded perfect for our guests who weren’t yet comfortable to sit on plastic stools on a pavement to eat food delivered from a hole in the wall, or a bunsen burner in the gutter. How wrong that decision turned out to be.

Beef was tough as boots, everything that was fried was oily, the waiter kept jabbing his fingers into the food to tell us what to dip into what, and completely failed  to mention that many of the items in the traditional platter were repeated in some of the other starters we ordered.

Green Tangerine - Caustic Candy

Green Tangerine - a quiet courtyard oasis

Please don’t waste your money on dinner here. Have a drink at the lovely Bamboo Bar, but sidestep the monstrous Spices Garden. We spent US$240 for four people eating only starters and mains with one reasonably priced bottle of wine.

Ngon (Quan An Ngon), 18 Phan Boi Chau, Tel: +84 4 3942 8162

Fun, great service, good food. The safe-bet.

It’s loud, it’s packed, but at least it’s packed with tourists and Hanoians alike. Service was very good. It was efficient despite there being about 300 diners there at any one time. They suggested dishes when they thought you’d made the meal unbalanced, and no one has offered to peel my prawns at the table for a very long time. The food was good and the cost very reasonable.

Green Tangerine, 48 Hang Be, Tel: +84 4 3825 1286

I’m a bit sentimental about the Green Tangerine. I’ve been going since it opened in 2003. Its quirky French/Vietnamese fusion works pretty well, the presentation is interesting and I’ve never taken anyone there who hasn’t enjoyed their food and the styling of the restaurant. It’s expensive for a restaurant in Hanoi, but nowhere near Metropole pricing. Sitting inside or out, it’s a great little oasis, especially at lunch time.

Thanh Chuong Palace

One of the houses in Thanh Chuong Palace

Thanh Chuong Palace, Hien Ninh Commune, Day Dieu, Keo Ca Dam, Soc Son Town, Tel: +84 043 793 0667

We had lunch in the restaurant here after looking around the palace. It’s a quirky oddity of a place, and you wouldn’t expect the restaurant of a tourist attraction to serve great food, but our lunch was very tasty, with really generous portions. We enjoyed it sitting out on the terrace overlooking one of the many ponds.

I highly recommend visiting the palace as part of a half-day trip out of town. Exotissimo teamed it with a visit to the Giong Temple which was also beautiful. I rate these guys highly having had their guides in Thailand a couple of weeks ago during a trip on the Anantara Dream in Bangkok, and had friends use them to great success in Laos.

It’s safe to say that we ate well within our comfort zone in Hanoi. We were considering the sensitivities of our guests so were eating only upscale and super-safe.

That said though, apart from The Spices Garden we really did enjoy our food, and I’m looking forward to going back to Hanoi again soon and getting lowdown and local on the pavement.

Ho Chi Minh – Maxing a weekend from HK

DragonsNow that my rehab is over from being fitted with the most technologically advanced bionic limbs and a new eye that gives me more functionality than a iPhone 4, I can once again get back to my job and start traveling again.

So, recently it was a trip to Ho Chi Minh – this is going to be a long post, but hopefully it’s got lots of helpful stuff: online visa application, best flights from HK, hotels, restaurants, clubs an bars, shopping gems, trips and massages.

I don’t remember much about Ho Chi Minh the first time I went – delerium had set in after I’d managed to pick up something nasty during a hunt for gem smugglers in Quy Chau back in ’95.

Suffice to say that the place is completely different now than it was 15 years ago, when it was all bicycles, nón lá’s and Australian NGOs.

I’ve traditionally been a monstrous fan of Hanoi so have spent far more time in that city over the last few years, but I thought it was time to give HCM another shot, and a very pleasant weekend was had too.

Getting there (from HK):

Flights:

United Airlines offer a fantastic option to max your time in HCM on a weekend from HK.

UA869 leaves HK at 20:40 getting you in around 22:00

UA862 leaves HCM at 06:15 getting you back to HK around 09:50, which means you can be in the office by 11am, which is perfect.

At that time in the morning in HCM it takes 20mins to get to the airport from the centre of town so it’s not too brutal a wake-up call if you’re checked-out, packed and ready to go.

At HCM on the way back we paid US$39 each for extra legroom and ended up on the front row of economy class, which meant we could dash off the plane and into work in the quickest possible time.

Visas: We tried the online visa service by www.myvietnamvisa.com.

This was convienent and good value and the approval letter arrived within 48 hours.

I thought I was being terribly smart by using this service, but once we landed in HCM and sauntered off the plane to immigration, it became apparent that at least 80 other people had had the same bright idea, and so there we sat in immigration for over an hour, waiting for our visas to be processed.

Unless I really can’t get my passport down to the consulate here in HK the next time I plan to go to Vietnam I won’t use this service, as it was no fun hanging out in the airport until well past 11pm after a long day in the office.

Things to know if you decide use the online service:

1) Your visa approval letter will contain a bunch of other names that have nothing to do with you. They process the visa applications in batches of up to 20 at a time, just ignore these other names and check that yours are on there.

2) Run, elbow, trip and barge your way to immigration from the plane to try and be at the front of the queue for visa processing (it’s on left of the immigration hall). It should then only take 15-20 mins.

3) They do take multiple currencies not just US$ and dong (as it says at the counter). We paid in HK$ and although it was a fairly steep exchange rate, there are no ATMs around so you don’t have a choice.

Hotels:

HCM should be bursting at the seams with beautifully refurbed deco hotels, but for some reason this is not the case.

The place is chockablock with the raw materials, but all of them seem to be state run. So establishments like the Continental, the Rex, the Majestic, and the Grand to name but a few, are absolutely horrendous. Your options therefore, are to stay 5-star brand name, or to go 3-star and below townhouse, otherwise you’ll just be frustrated by what these wonderful old hotels ought to be like.

We stayed high-end in the Park Hyatt in District 1 (centre of town), and it was fine rather than excellent. However, there are so many tiny, friendly, cheap and clean little townhouse hotels in District 1 that until a truly interesting boutique/heritage hotel opens I’ll stay in one of those.

Next time we would probably stay somewhere like the Catina as it’s slap bang on Dong Khoi, which is a good little street for shops, bars and restaurants, and has in-room wifi.

Quan An Bistro

Quan An Bistro

All of the ones below are in District 1, and oh my lord, how cheap it is to eat! The only time we spent over US$40 for the two of us was in Square One in the Hyatt.

Like Thailand though, it’s likely that the best meals you can have are just at the most local, plastic-stool-type hawker stalls, which are dotted around the place. Don’t be shy, just point at what you like the look of, or ask another diner what’s good. English and French are pretty widely spoken by young (English) and old (French).

There are a bunch of what I call Heritage restaurants in HCM, in villas or old houses, sporting antiques, dark woods and a slightly colonial feel. The ones we tried were:

 

Tib187 Hai Ba Trung -  This place is highly recommended in every guide I looked at inexplicably as it’s way, way past it. Avoid.

Quan An Bistro -  71/5 – 71/6 Mạc Thị Bưởi (083.8258275) – down an alley off Mac Thi Buoi in an old town house.

Service was good and the food was really decent. Enjoyed it muchly and the staff were friendly.  Looks much better in real life than on some of the websites I’ve seen.

Temple Club - 29–31 Ton That Thiep.

Enjoyable meal – food was good and the decor stylish. Better known as a relaxed lounge bar, it’s best to go for an early dinner as the nightclub down the street’s bass post-9pm was so strong the light-fittings jingled the entire meal.

Others:

Square One - in the Park Hyatt. Very good food but glad we only went for lunch. The most pricey at US$60 for two, and a bit 5-star pompous.

Au Parc – 23 Han Thuyen St, (08-829-2772) – Cute French bistro open from breakfast through dinner time, on the park near the old post office and cathedral etc.

3A3 Bun Bo Hue – 39A Ngo Duc Ke Street in District 1, (38 293 526) – but has branches all over the place. Canteen style, packed for lunch, great food and good value.

There are loads of restaurants in HCM and lots recommended that we’ll try next time we go. We just wanted to get a handle on the centre of the city so we didn’t go outside District 1. We’ll leave those assaults for future trips.

Cafes with WIFI:

There are coffee joints and cafes all over the shop. Highlands Coffee still seems to be the most pervasive, and has free WIFI which was very useful as most mobile providers don’t have cheap data passes to Vietnam yet.

LiquidBars/Clubs:

It seems that a fair amount of fun can be had in HCM at night. If you’re gay, then it seems you can have even more!

Liquid Club - 104 Hai Ba Trung – We kind of outdid ourselves on our first night out by running across Liquid on Hai Ba Trung.

It was the first club we passed on our way back into town from Tib, and who were we to resist the lure of a four storey blue neon festooned club with paramilitary bouncers outside it? T’would have been churlish not to explore.

The other clubs we visited after that were tame, snooty or a little bit dull in contrast.

It’s a happy house/techno club that seems to be very popular with locals and not so with expats. It was packed with cognac swilling tattooed gangsters in caps, surrounded by stunning six-footers, and office-workers celebrating birthdays (we knew this because we were subjected to a techno rendition of Happy Birthday at least five times in three hours).

There were scantily clad GaGa styled dancers and a slew of “PR” girls all in yellow making sure the punters weren’t lonely. Waiters were easy to spot in snazzy white-tie with turquoise trimmings, and security were even easier to spot in fatigues and berets.

The laser show was retina burning, bamboozling and skirted on the edge of inducing some kind of Ipcress Files breakdown. We were completely deaf when we tumbled out. Masses of fun, with absolutely no edge to the atmosphere.

Q Bar – Hasten then to Q Bar, under the Opera House which is touted as the most sophisticated bar in town. We hit it quite late on in the night and weren’t at all impressed.

Inside it was clubby, snooty, and very obviously where all the most knife-edge of gays decide to hang out. There’s nothing more cool about being gay than being straight. It doesn’t mean you have to pose, sneer and scowl at the heterosexuals because they decide they too fancy a bit of a dance and a drink. To be fair it seemed to be the fags’ hags that were most hostile. Maybe my shoes offended them, or they thought I was going to steal their bangles.

Outside was more chilled and welcoming.

Villa - 2/F 131 Dong Khoi St – We then headed out again into the night and heard pounding bass from a darkened 2nd floor premises. This was small, dark and super gay. Thoroughly friendly, and fun with none of the bitchiness of Q, but the music was not quite as daft as Liquid.

Crazy BuffaloGo2 Bar - De Tham Street – We spent a few hours down on De Tham street sitting in the street side cafes. Great backpacker watching and very relaxed despite the mopeds and general street craziness.

I don’t usually have any interest in hanging out in places where the tourists wear their luggage on their backs and Tevas on their feet, but this was actually pretty fun. Go2 had a great corner location which was marvelous for viewing the general goings-on and it has a pool table. Crazy Buffalo is a huge 4 storey club that’s opened recently opposite and looks quite wild, a least from the outside.

Shopping:

The real standout store for me was Verlim. They are an interior design outfit that also sell their own designs of lighting, objet d’art, restored and new furniture as well as paintings, carpets and upholstery.

With a strong Belle Époque influence it’s no surprise that Verlim has been commissioned by the likes of David Tang for pieces in his establishments.

Their style is right up my strasse.

You can find them at 41 Ho Tung Mau St., District 1, Ho Chi Minh City Tel: (84.8) 8211655

There’s also a couple of outlets of Ipa-Nima, Christina Yu’s handbag and accessories store. I still have a real soft-spot for her whimsical designs that are handmade in the country. There’s branches at The New World Hotel at 76 Le Lai Street, and also at 85 Pasteur Street.

Not for the PETA members amongst my readers, but Viet Thanh has some really good value leather handbags and accessories in croc, ostrich and snake. Some of the designs are rather old fashioned, but there’s also some classic styles that will never date.

Silk and embroidered goods are the other popular buys in Vietnam. I’m not a huge fan of Vietnamese silk, I prefer Thai and Laotian styles, but for embroidery they can’t be topped. There are tonnes of embroidery stores, which sell everything from Christmas napkin and tablecloth sets through duvets and kid’s clothing. You’ll find them all over District 1, and there’s not one which stood out over the others for me particularly. Kitsch but very cute.

Massage:

We had a good few massages around town. We particularly enjoyed My Spa at 15C4 Thi Sach Street, tel 0989 973 309. I also rather liked the Lotus Tea served in all the massage palours. I’d never come across it before.

Street Crime:

Fortunately I have never been the victim of violent crime in Asia. It does happen, but in general I think SE Asia is very safe.

However, do hold onto your handbags girls in Ho Chi Minh. I always have mine clamped under my arm and over my shoulder on a short handle, and always zipped up.

Right in front of The Park Hyatt at 2:30am on a Friday night a foreign girl walking a few paces in front of me was mugged by two guys on a moped. At first we thought he was just going too fast through a traffic light and was on a course to hit her and we all started shouting, then we saw he had grabbed her satchel strap which was round her neck and pulled her to the floor. We raced towards them shouting and the pillion passenger let go, but not before the girl had suffered a pretty nasty injury.  We made sure she got to a clinic and she was fine, but it shook me a little as it was a violent assault rather than an opportunistic slash and grab.

Apart from that, Ho Chi Minh was a lot of fun – the locals are genuinely friendly, the food is fantastic, the shopping is good and there’s too much to see and do to get even slightly bored

My only disappointment (much like Hanoi), is that there is a dearth of good boutique hotels, and I have literally no idea why this should be. Hopefully this will change sometime soon.

Mopeds

Escape from Singapore: One long nightmare on the drive to Melaka

Singapore Traffic

On a recent trip to Singapore, we decided to include a jaunt up the coast into Malaysia to visit Melaka; the venerable old sea-port that was usurped by the swampy village at the tip of the peninsula as the premier entrepot in South East Asia in the 1800s.

Having spoken to friends who said the journey would take less than three hours, we thought it a great idea. We’d heard the food was good, and it fitted in neatly with some reconnaissance I needed to do.

What a palavar the whole thing turned out to be!

It’s definitely worth making the trip, but do read the rest of this post to avoid the rookie mistakes we blundered into.

  1. Book your car as far in advance as possible, and tell them that you are going to Malaysia.
  2. There are extra charges for driving into Malaysia to cover insurance etc.

    We left it until just five days before we wanted to make the trip and all the big agencies were booked out. We therefore had to use a small agency that was based downtown and wasn’t open on a Sunday. This meant that we had to faff about working out with them where and how we were going to leave the car, which involved buying parking tickets before we left and driving to the location we were going to dump the car so we’d know how to get there, and then having to factor in the time that we had to get back to Singapore so that we could make it to the airport and our flight back to HK.

    A good one hour wasted here. Faff and nonsense.

  3. Buy a NETS cash card and try and get hold of a Touch’n Go card for Malaysia
  4. If you drive a car in Singapore, then you have to have a NETS cash card. This is a stored value card that you swipe to get through all the highway toll booths. From what I can gather, it’s pretty much the same as an Octopus so you can use it for all sorts of transport and retail payments too. Buy at any 7-Eleven and you can top up at the same.

    Whilst you don’t need a Touch’n Go card to travel in Malaysia, it is quite useful. It’s worth asking the car rental agency if they have one you can use just in case someone has left one in a car as it often happens. This means that instead of having to pay a person in a toll booth at each highway stop, you can just swipe your way through the fast way. You can top up the card at marked toll booths as well, which is useful. Again, this card can be used for other retail and transport purchases in Malaysia.

    I think we spent around 70 Ringgit on tolls there and back.

    If you don’t get the Touch’n Go card then you need Ringgit in Malaysia almost immediately, so do have cash on hand. Apparently you can pay in Singapore Dollars, but you’ll get the rapacious exchange rate of 1:1 (there are currently almost 2.5 Ringgit to the Sing Dollar.)

  5. Don’t get lost in Singapore.
  6. Sometimes even the most highly trained of intelligence personnel can be baffled and thwarted by mediocre consumer technology, and poor signposting.

    I didn’t know how to use the Google Maps search function on my iPhone, and the GPS was about 50m out. Coupled with the stupidly late signposting of highway exits and junctions, we spent a ludicrous amount of time trying to get out of Singapore, which completely took the fun out of the journey to Melaka.

    Faff and nonsense. Lost another hour on this.

  7. Make sure you have at least three-quarters of a tank of gas when leaving Singapore.
  8. Petrol is about half the price in Malaysia than it is in Sing. I’m not sure how strict the authorities are about this (apparently checks are random), but considering their policy on most rules and regs, we decided to avoid any chance of a SGD500 fine (approx. US$400), and fill up after wasting a good quarter of a tank getting lost in the city state.

    You’d have thunk that there’d be a slew of petrol stations close to the border to capture all the business of cross-border traffic, but no. We lost at least another half an hour finding gas, and that was about 3km back down the highway. Do not go into the industrial parks looking, there is no gas there…

  9. Border Crossings
  10. This is going to take time, at the very least half an hour each way. You can pick up immigration cards for Sing when you leave (ask the immigration guy for them in the booth),  and you can pick up the Malaysian ones in a little office by the roadside when you’re queuing for immigration.

  11. Understanding Malaysian Drivers
  12. There are two types of drivers to particularly look out for. Crazed speed freaks who drive literally on your bumper even if you are currently overtaking a vehicle, and fast lane slow-coaches who stick to the speed limit with righteous indignation, impeding yours and others’ progress. Undertaking is not allowed, but is sometimes the only option. Look out for slow moving traffic as rarely are indicators or hazard warning lights used.

    Traffic police often drive in unmarked cars, so if you’re unlucky you could be pulled for speeding.

Once out of Singapore we had just half an hour of light left, but the drive to Melaka wasn’t too fraught. We made decent time traveling at around 120kph. There were a lot of boy racers, trucks, buses and generally poor driving that meant you had to keep your wits about you, but the highway was good and we made Melaka in a couple of hours.

It took us an hour longer than that just to pick up the car and get out of Singapore…

Koh Yao Noi – The Paradise Resort

Dawn

Dawn breaks over Phang Nga Bay

Now usually I wouldn’t divulge my most favourite places until I’d swooped in and secured the real estate at a decent price, but I feel compelled to share this one right now.

I love holidaying in Thailand, and I’ve recently discovered another little gem that joins the River Kwai and Khao Sok in my list of perfect long weekend jaunts from Hong Kong.

Koh Yao Noi is smack dab in the middle of Phang Nga Bay, a gentle 45 minute boat ride from Phuket. It’s got all the charm of Koh Samui and Phi Phi back in the day i.e. limited numbers of tourists, a fair number of dirt roads, secret beaches, fantastic and cheap food, and a laid back local populace.

There are two upscale accommodation options on the island,  The Paradise Resort and the Evason Six Senses, and for this trip the Paradise checked all the boxes:

  • A decent hotel spa
  • My own terrace with sala and jacuzzi
  • A villa on a hill overlooking the marvelous karst scenery of Phang Nga bay
  • No large groups of Russian tourists (sorry Russian tour groups, but you’re noisy and tend to wander around inappropriately in speedos and thong bikinis).
  • Quiet

I’d say The Paradise has 80% of what you get at the Evason for less then half the price, (and the 20% that is missing is made up entirely of aesthetics, more sophisticated food and a wider range of spa treatments.)

Paradise Resort

The Paradise Resort

So, after a night in Bangkok at the Eugenia, we caught the early flight to Phuket and were picked up by the hotel at the airport. After a 15 minute transfer to a marina, we waited for a few other guests to arrive and then shortly after we set off for the island.

Transfer: THB2,200 per person, one way. To leave the island we took a huge public speedboat back to Phuket which was just as convenient.

The view from my bed

Villas:  We stayed in a Jacuzzi Deluxe villa, which was perched high on the hillside with a sea view. I’m not a huge beachy person, and much prefer having grandiose open views rather than being able to access the beach from my front door. I was expecting thunderstorms too which are always more exciting when you’re up high.

Good sized room, well constructed, nice natural materials; all wooden, stone and slate inside. Great little terrace with a covered sala one end and an unheated, sunken jacuzzi. Bathroom also opened one entire wall onto the terrace so you felt like you were showering outside, (Mr H was a little concerned he could be peeped at so wasn’t keen on opening up, but I was certain it was fine).

The room was excellent value for money.

Service: The manager is a friendly Swiss guy who’d been in the hotel trade for decades. Staff were helpful, although at times a little slow to respond.

Facilities: We made good use of the spa, which was well priced and very pleasant. There was also a yoga sala on the beach and a lot of watersports options. There was a good deal of wildlife around the hotel, from hornbills to monitor lizards.

Our guide kayaking on a tiny lagoon inside a limestone island

The hotel organised a boatman and guide for the day and we went kayaking around Phang Nga Bay which was an excellent excursion.

Because we were so much closer to all the best islands and lagoons than people staying on Phuket, we could get everywhere earlier than the hordes of braying booze cruisers.

The kayaks would be strapped to the side of the boat until needed and we’d zap off in our long-tailed skiff to each location. The hotel also organised a great picnic lunch and we had plenty of water, towels, extra dry bags for our gear and sunscreen etc. Very thoughtful.

We explored all kinds of hidden lagoons a la “The Beach” and generally just pootled around with our very nice guide.

Food: The food we had at the hotel was good if limited. Un-fussy, lots of fresh seafood and locally grown produce. Buffet breakfast was generous and surprisingly varied. You could eat in the restaurant or on the beach and there was also a beach bar with friendly staff and TV to watch if you wanted. Not sure how bonkers it would have driven me if I had stayed a week and only been able to eat at the one restaurant.

Beach: The tide goes very far out on the beach here and leaves quite a muddy bay behind it. That doesn’t bother me, and there was a well landscaped, large swimming pool to use. But I know that a lot of people who don’t have the same kind of daily access we do to beaches in Hong Kong need to have their beach expectations managed.

Getting around: The resort is barely accessible by road, and is remote from the rest of the island. It’s in a great location with wonderful views of the karst islands rather than just bare ocean. There are private speedboat transfers, or you can hop on the public boats that ferry staff over to the inhabited side of the island.

We took an eyeopening ride back to the hotel one evening in a taxi. From half-way the roads were just rubble and we had to get out and push the taxi up a hill at one stage. All quite fun!

Island: The rest of the island is super chilled. It’s a mainly Muslim community so it’s not a raucous party island. Apart from the Evason, the rest of the accommodation is very simple, low-budget backpacker style beach huts. There are no penny-pinching gap-year backpackers which is a blessed relief.

We had a fantastic meal at Sabai Corner, and would highly recommend sitting there watching the sun go down and eating supper.

We also had a spa treatment and lunch at the Evason Six Senses. It was very pleasant, very sophisticated and ever so hushed. Shhhhh.

The villas are impressive, but unless I was going to the island in high season and really needed the seclusion that money buys, I wouldn’t be tempted. The hotel also caused some upset in the community when they arrived, and so the locals were unimpressed for a long while. Apparently management are now more sensitive about their role on the island and relations are slowly improving.

Price: THB15,600 for four nights! That’s around US$500. Awesome value. This included one night free which was a special deal for patrons who lived in Asia.

We will definitely be going back to The Paradise. The hotel isn’t the plushest, most sophisticated in the world, but for the budget that they must have had to build it, it has been very thoughtfully planned and maximizes the stunning location. It sits gently in it’s surroundings and the atmosphere (at least in low season when we were there) is friendly and super chilled, and you just can’t argue with value for money like that.

Koh Yao Noi is a delightful island, and staggeringly unspoiled considering that Phuket is mere minutes away.

Sunday evening bliss – Sham Shek Tsuen

Hong Kong corners:

I’m feeling all bucolic at the moment. I think it’s spending more time on Lantau with the cows that’s doing it.

Sunset and low tide in Sham Wat Bay

I’ve always been slightly reticent to reveal my favourite “secret” places in Hong Kong in case more people decide to descend, but I’ve realised that very few civilians can be bothered to or have time to investigate the furthest reaches of our nobbly territory, so I’m going to start sharing, (albeit I’m still not going to give you my most favourite places for now, we’re going to start small).

Tucked down in one of the most hidden corners of Lantau is Sham Shek Tsuen and Sham Wat Bay.

If you ever walk between Tai O and Tung Chung (a highly recommended, easy walk around the coast, through some fantastic villages), then you will come to Sham Wat which is below the Big Buddha.

There are a couple of little eateries, and the locals are just super lovely.  The muddy bay is chock full with oysters, mussels, cockles and crabs, and the village is known for its oyster omelettes and dried seaweed.

A beautiful corner of Hong Kong, where you can sit with a can of beer, dangle your legs over the sea wall and watch the sun slip below the horizon into the sea and the locals harvesting their seafood. Chill-mc-chillin.

The villagers insisted on giving us lots of fruit from their orchards.

The best way to get there (as most of you don’t have a Lantau permit) is actually to do it as part of the walk to or from Tai O, or by bike if you’ve got legs of steel.

But if you fancy a last beer after a day on the beaches of South Lantau then the only way to go is by taxi, and get ready for a pretty hairy ride up and down the Sham Wat Road.

Call taxis on 2984 1328 or 2984 1268. Be persistent, taxis can be wildly difficult to get through to here.

Island Club – replacement for Frog & Toad on Lantau?

Of course nothing could replace the Frog & Toad on Lantau, it was a unique institution. But, I am interested to see that The Island Club has now been set up in Chi Ma Wan’s Dai Long Wan village.  I met the very nice Shirley Chan on a reconnaissance trip last weekend,  and discovered not only an organic veggie farm, but also her Island Club.

Dai Long Wan has a lovely beach and although has no road access it’s actually very straightforward to get to – either walking a quick 25mins from Chi Ma Wan prison, by 20min kaido from Cheung Chau, or by junk.  It’s not really on the junk trip radar anymore, but the Island Club will provide you with all sorts of watersports equipment, bbqs and booze.  Either $350 or $450 per person for all the food and booze you can tuck away  (including those lovely organic veggies), I think it would make an awesome stop off for a lazy weekend beach party. Certainly of more interest than the hideous Stoep on Cheung Sha.

We carried on round the coast to Sea Ranch for a bit of a gander.  Fantastic walk, really pretty path from Chi Ma Wan Prison all the way to Sea Ranch, but Oh My God!  What a horrible canker on the bottom of Lantau that former “luxury” resort is.  It’s post-apocalyptic, it’s rotten, it’s spine-chilling frankly.  Broken windows, broken blinds, desiccated pot-plants left out for years on balconies, one house had a bunch of weird statues of 4ft tall african tribesman standing outside their front door – oddness. A couple of the flats/houses are lived in and there are 24hour guards, but it really feels like hell descended and just ate everyone up.  Shpooky. We ran away ‘toot sweet’.

Anyway: Click here for all the contact details and how to get there.

Sukhumvit/Ploenchit – Where to sleep, shop, spa and sup in Bangkok

I never tire of Thailand. I don’t think it’s possible to have a bad holiday there, unless you are a muppet and go around smoking drugs and letting coconuts fall on your head.

I never tire of Bangkok either, even though I’ve been there countless times.  It’s just a great city, but – and this is important – it’s only great as long as you know how to get around and don’t sit in traffic jams for hours on end.

causticcandy_bangkok

If you only have a long weekend or just a couple of days in Bangkok then I would heartily suggest staying somewhere along the Sukhumvit Road or the beginning of Ploenchit (they lead into each other).

As the traffic is still atrocious you do need to base yourself close to a Skytrain station preferably, or an underground.

Any bars/restaurants etc outside this immediate vicinity mainly have their own posts elsewhere on the blog (eg, if it’s your first time in Bangkok you really do have to go for sundowners at Vertigo at the Banyan Tree but it’s a way away from Sukhumvit in Silom).

Stay:

The Eugenia on Sukhumvit Soi 31 for small, chic and sophisticated.

Hyatt Erawan or Conrad, for big 5* chains that are both very close to Gaysorn and Siam Paragon for shopping/cinemas/Skytrain junctions/on-site spas.

Do not stay anywhere near the Grand Palace unless you are only going to be doing siteseeing/eating in that area or along the river. The traffic is enough to try the patience of the Buddha.

Eat:

Around Sukhumvit:

Vendome is good (if French and formal), next to the Eugenia. Nice setting in a house with a sweet garden and terrace. Big wine list, and a couple of private rooms up stairs.

Cabbages and Condoms – standard Thai fare, and is always worth a meal if you have time as the service is laughably haphazard – but it’s all for a good charitable cause.

Kuppa at 39 Sukhumvit Soi 16, lovely for lunch, huge, airy and industrial. Tel: 02663-0495

DB Bradley Room in the Eugenia. Now I haven’t eaten here, I was thwarted by the traffic last time I was in BKK when I was trying out a hotel in another part of town. It gets good reviews, and it is the most stunning room – hand painted wallpaper with gold leaf, and only about 8 tables in toto. Super romantic.

It’s fusion, but apparently very good. Someone please go and let me know what it’s like as I’ve been dying to go here for months!

Avoid: Lan Na Thai (great venue, poor food), Spring & Summer (again great venue, poor food).

Bed Supperclub -If you haven’t been to BKK before and you are under 25, then this venue is still something fun and different to go to, but bear in mind you eat lounging around on beds, so it’s not for everyone’s digestive system (must bring ID with you for age-verification even if you are 90), and it’s still style over substance.

I’m putting non-Sukhumvit restaurants in other posts. It is worth heading out and braving the traffic only in the evenings, and it’s certainly easier to get across town starting here, way out west than it is, starting off round the Palace or River areas.

causticcandy_bangkoktaxi

I know I haven’t mentioned many Thai restaurants here, but I’d suggest that your hotel concierge knows where the best ones are in your district, or where their favourite ones are.

Thai’s think that all farang are pussies and can’t possibly take their food as hot as the locals do. If you like it hot, do impress upon your waiters/concierge that you want it proper spicy. I sometimes feel like I have to down a bottle of Tabasco to get them to believe me.

Sup:

Face: Although the Thai restaurant here (Lan Na Thai), is nothing to write home about, Face, the bar, is great. Serves good cocktails and is in a stunning teak housing complex.

Bed Supperclub: Again, one for the kids, but it’s still quite fun.

Q Bar: still fun here too, but better if you are in a bigger group as at least it’s easier for the boys to avoid the hookers (if they want to…).

BKK has lost it’s party really, after the crackdown. If you hang out in some of the bigger clubs though it’s easy to meet people and there is a big scene in underground after-parties (in fact most of them seem to be on roofs).

Soi Nana and Soi Cowboy. As long as you’re not with your parents, or clients, then having a drink in both these Sois can be fun if you haven’t been to BKK before and you’re undecided on the moral dilemma of it all. It’s certainly the better end of the prostitution business, if there is a better end. I have no issue with girls (or boys, or lady boys) dancing round with next to nothing on, or shooting ping pong balls out of their more private orifices, but the take-it-home side of things does make me wince.

For a good overview of prostitution in Asia, that actually gives you some decent context read Louise Brown’s Sex Slaves - the trafficking of women in Asia. The content is useful and enlightening, even if the delivery is heavy-handed.

Day spas:

Ah, one of my favourite pursuits in Thailand.

Lavana Spa: I love this spa, it’s on Soi 12

I am a massive herbal ball massage fan, and they have five different varieties here, made up of different herbs for different purposes (you can even watch the ladies making them, and buy them in the shop, all their products are made in-house).

This is a big spa, they have nearly 50 rooms and it’s a bit of a labyrinth. Rooms are crisp and clean, and their therapists are superb. It’s actually quite an art to perform a herbal ball massage correctly and this is the best I’ve encountered. It’s not as plush as a 5* hotel, but it’s still stylish, at least half the price and it’s really very good. BHT850 (less than HK$200) for 90 minutes of massage is staggeringly reasonable. You’d be hard pressed to wait more than 10mins for a therapist if you walked off the street (although booking is advisable at busy times), and it’s open until 2am. Perfect.

Mulberry: I also love this spa, but mainly for foot massages. Soi 23.

I am a complete reflexology glutton – an addict even. The two best foot massages I’ve ever had have been here, and then at Dragonfly in Beijing.

The surroundings are very sweet and homely here – it’s set in a big wooden house with gardens, so it’s a very enjoyable place to spend some quality time. I’d go to Lavana which is very close by for other massages and treatments though. I had a facial here which wasn’t brilliant, and their herbal massage didn’t stack up against Lavana either. Again open late, so great for a spot of relexology on the way home from the pub, or if you are suffering from jet lag. Blissful.

Shopping:

Malls:

Siam Paragon and Gaysorn are the top end malls and where most of your designer shops are. I have found that for men especially, the designers here don’t carry many sizes, and it’s difficult to find anything in manly, European sizes, let alone US sizes. I’ve also found that prices are higher than in HK, so I’ve never bought anything top end in BKK.

Siam Discovery Centre is a bit more furniture, nicknacks focussed (even has a Habitat, dontyerknow), some nice shops in here.

Central World (the newest in this strip), Siam Center, MBK, Siam Square and Siam Discovery have all the rest of the things you might be interested in really – its a great conglomeration of shopping, just a very useful place to go and get your acquisition fever out of the way in one fell swoop. Really don’t bother going anywhere else if you only have a short period of time.

Siam Centre is one of my favourites even though it’s a bit old and cramped, as it has a Boots (for all you Brits out there), as well as Jaspal and a slew of funky Thai designer shops (like Fly Now), as well as a couple of great shoe shops in the form of Lyn (cheap and cheerful), and one which stocks shoes by Obsession (I’m not sure the whole shop is called Obsession, I’ll update that later but it’s almost opposite one of the exits of Jaspal). Anyway, suffice to say that especially on the level where Boots is, which is the skytrain level, there are loads of interesting shops.

Soi 23:

There are some very nice homeware type shops up around the Mulberry Spa, on the walk from the Asoke skytrain station to the Eugenia hotel.

Almeta Silk: Beautiful made to order fabrics, choose the thread count and the pantone colour.  You walk in and after 5 minutes wonder how on earth people choose, as you decide all you really want to do is deck your house out in the entire rainbow of colours they have on offer. Great for design freaks who know exactly what shade they need. These guys are used to handling overseas orders. Lots of pre-made merch on sale too. 20/3 Soi Prasarnmitr, Sukhumvit Soi 23. Tel:662 2041413.

Incredible & Eligible: These two furniture/nicknack shops are run by the same guy who is a designer. Incredible is stuffed with the antiques and oddities that inspire him, and Eligible houses the new designs bourne out of these inspirations.

Think old telescopes, hurricane lamps, ancient mirrors, stuffed birds, overstuffed sofas. It’s difficult to explain and I don’t have a photo. Just take a look at the Eugenia Hotel interiors on their website and this is the style of things you’ll find in these two shops. Eligible is at 116/2 Soi 23 (tel: 662 662 8053) and Incredible is at 116/4 (tel 662 260 9690). Really lovely staff too, and you can also commission bespoke pieces which is good news!

Pic from the Eugenia website: don't you want to stay there?!
Pic from the Eugenia website: don’t you want to stay there?!

These are my standout stores on this Soi, but take a wander as there are all sorts. For a thorough source I can highly recommend the Luxe Guide to BKK.  I’m not so bowled over by their restaurant recommendations – (to be fair this may well be more a matter of personal taste rather than bad suggestions), but for shopping they are very useful guides if you don’t have a lot of time (and being proper pocket sized, you can avoid looking too much like a tourist).

Cinema.

Quite possibly Bangkok has the best cinema in the world. It’s in the Siam Paragon mall and is called the Enigma Shadow Lounge. The cinema consists of a bar where you can sit and have drinks before the film, and the cinema itself.

There are around 17 booths which are basically 6ft by 6ft beds for two people. There are stacks of silken cushions and pillows as well as silk duvets for you to lie back in and relax. Totally sumptuous. To finish off this experience there is waitress service where you just raise your hand and they come scurrying down to bring you your next beer/G&T/plate of nachos. The screen is huge and you are totally private in your own high sided booth. Bloody marvellous. I have to admit that my recent weekend trips to Bangkok have all been worked around me being able to see the biggest films of the year at Enigma.

This has now become a members’ only cinema, but my hotel concierges have never had a problem getting tickets for us, so that’s probably the best way to sort it out.

One thing to note: Whenever you go to the cinema in Thailand, they play the national anthem before the film and you need to show your respect and stand up.

Places worth making a dash to away from Sukhumvit:

I love Jim Thompson’s house (and it’s on a skytrain line). I must have been there 5 times, and never stop enjoying it. I love the garden, I love the styling, I love the colours, and I actually really love the shop.  The handbags and scarves are particular favourites, (there are good branches of the shop in lots of the top malls in BBK including the ones mentioned above).

Vertigo at the Banyan Tree. Bar literally on the roof, nestled amongst the air-conditioning units 61 stories up. Spectacular. Well worth a visit at sundown, and best to arrive at that time to get a good spot. It is a bitch to get to unless you are staying in Silom, so I suggest leaving an hour to get there if you are in and around Siam Square, longer if you are at the Eugenia.

smashing photo from their website
smashing photo from their website

Cafe de Laos (in Silom like the Banyan Tree, so good idea to go here for supper after your aperitif at Vertigo for some really good Laotian/Isaan food), and Suan Thip, a fantastic half day river trip with lunch or dinner.

Tips and notes:

Thai’s like tips as much as the rest of us. Try and take pink/orange taxis as they are newer. Avoid tuk-tuks unless you are going somewhere close by and the traffic is awful as at least the tuk-tuks can squeeze down the sides. Keep your handbags out of sight, and expect to smell of exhaust fumes and kerosene afterwards. I admit to taking a motocycle taxi once, as I was shopping and would have missed my flight home if I hadn’t. I wouldn’t make a habit of it.
causticcandy_bangkoktuktuk

Use your concierge to the max. The Luxe guide is good for shops, not so hot for restaurants. Nancy Chandler’s Map of Bangkok is also incredibly useful. So useful, that even I, who hates looking like a tourist, will get it out on a street corner to consult. I don’t bother with any other guides than these. Pick up restaurant/events/bar recommendations from the listings mags like BK Mag and Metro amongst others. You can pick the guides up easily around BKK, but best is at the Asia Books store next to the ATMs outside Siam Skytrain station as it’s always a good place to start a weekend in BKK.

Remember to tell your waiters how hot you want your food, and if you don’t ask or tell them, it will come to you almost bland because of all the years of bloody package tourists who can’t take their heat.

Danang – Easily doable for a long weekend from HK

Getting to Danang in Vietnam is surprisingly smooth from Hong Kong.

If you travel with hand luggage only, you can leave HK early morning on a Friday and get to your resort in Danang or to Hoi An in time for lunch (the transfer is a bit of a squeeze in Hanoi but we made it no problem – you arrive at 9:40 and your next flight is 10:05, but if you miss that you can get the 14:30 which gets you in at 15:45pm). On Sunday you can catch a 16:35 flight back to Hanoi that connects to the HK flight that finds you back there at 22:50pm. So, very doable for a quick weekend away somewhere a bit different.

Danang Nam Hai Caustic Candy

Of the Danang resorts I would choose a villa at the Nam Hai (review here), although I do still have a soft spot for the Furama Resort as it was the first decent hotel in the area, cheap in comparison to the Nam Hai and very adequate. (The latest property someone tried to flog me was the Hyatt Regency Residences which look horrid.  Can’t believe the government have allowed 12 storey high buildings in this area. Very sad).

Nam Hai Caustic Candy

If you want to stay in Hoi An instead then I highly recommend the Vinh Hung 1 right in the centre of the old town. It’s an old teak Chinese merchant’s house and is really sweet, it’s very reasonable, staff are welcoming and the service is good.

Vinh hung1.jpg

In terms of things to do, you can either just chill out in your villa or on the beach, go into Hoi An which is very much worth a snoop around, take river trips, play at various watersports in the sea, visit the ancient Cham ruins, or in fact go into Danang, which I think is a thoroughly pleasant town and has some great street restaurants and some hilarious bars and clubs.

Restaurants.

The restaurants that I have been to and enjoyed (apart from the ones in the Nam Hai which are really very good), are thus:

Hoi An: Brother’s Cafe. Venue is lovely. If you go for supper and sit in the garden which is by the river, do load up with mozzie repellent and get them to light coils. This is the most expensive restaurant in Hoi An, but is not leaps and bounds ahead of the competition in terms of food.

Cargo Club – run by expats, good food, lively. Has a balcony that overlooks the river, went for supper.

Saigon Times Club – run by some guys from Saigon, has a large roof terrace and interesting interior. Food is good. Gives Brothers a run for it’s money.

Cafe des Amis and Tam Tam Cafe – tended to go to these for lunch and for daytime drinks – Cafe des Amis, hasn’t had great reviews for dinner.

All these restaurants (apart from Brothers which is a bit of a walk) are within about 150yards of each other and the Vinh Hung 1 Hotel in the two roads that run parallel to the river.

Danang:  There are loads of little street restaurants in Danang that open up at night. Just pick one that’s busy and sit down.  Even if the waiters don’t speak English or French, then fellow diners will always help out.

Apsara: Lonely Planet recommends this as the best restaurant to go to in Danang, but it was nothing special in terms of venue, ambience or food especially after dining in Hoi An, and was overpriced for what it was. Really don’t bother – I’d just as soon eat on a plastic stool on the street.

Camel Club: We also stopped by here for a drink as it had been touted as the best club in town by Lonely Planet again (they really didn’t get things right in Danang…) and it was absolutely hilarious. Riotous techno, seizure inducing strobes, sleazy old expats rubbing themselves up against young ladies of negotiable affection, and to our eternal but rather politically incorrect delight, a group of Little People who got really drunk and aggressive with one another on the dance floor.

All in all, for a weekend away from HK it’s very easy to find things to do around Danang, it’s incredibly photogenic, and of course you are in Vietnam so the food is bloody lovely.

River Kwai – brilliant long weekend from HK (if you like driving).

As you may gather I’ve got a bit of a penchant for Thailand, and often go for long weekends.  I love going up to the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi for a couple of days not only because it gives me a chance to drive for more than an hour and not hit either a border or the sea, but also because one of my favourite hotels is up here and it happens to have one of the best Thai restaurants in the whole of the country (believe me, I’ve been to plenty…)

River Kwai Caustic Candy

Here is the itinerary:

Fly to BKK, pick up your hire-car and head west. It takes about 4 hours to drive to Sai Yok, which is about an hour past Muang Kanchanaburi. It is worth pushing on through to Sai Yok, and avoiding the temptation to stop off in Kanchanaburi itself.

Stay at Resotel (more info here) on the River Kwai  - do book ahead as it’s quite small and is popular with the Russians in particular now for some reason.

Now you are ensconced in your hotel there are loads of things to do.  Erawan has some lovely waterfalls, you can go to the fascinating, eerie, and beautiful Hell Fire Pass where all the POWs, Thai and Vietnamese slaves were forced to build the Thai/Burma railway in WWII. You can go and visit the elephant camps, hire bikes and just cycle around, visit the labyrinth of reservoirs up around Srinakarin and go fishing, take river trips, or  just generally mooch around in your car exploring up to the borders of Burma. Lots of things to do for a 2-3 days.

The restaurant (and the spa for that matter) at the Resotel is particularly good, it is without doubt one of the best restaurants I’ve eaten at in Thailand.  There are also loads of road-side stalls and restaurants all over the place and you can pretty much guarantee having a good if basic meal at any one of them, no matter how rustic they might look!

It’s a super chilled area of Thailand, it has beautiful scenery and it’s really quiet.  The roads are almost empty and are a joy to drive on.

On the drive back to BKK you do have to be very careful when you close in on the BKK ring-road if you don’t have sat-nav, as it is easy to miss the turning to get on to the ring-road that will take you back to the airport.  If you miss it, turn back, DO NOT get involved in driving into Bangkok. If you miss the ring road and follow the airport signposts they take you straight through the centre of town and it will take you an extra 2 or 3 hours to get to the airport – as you can tell, I didn’t turn back…

M1NT, Hong Kong – like it despite myself.

Despite myself, I like M1NT – I abhor Dragon-i (except for dim sum)and all these other velvet rope clubs.  M1NT’s always laid back early on, with a really chilled vibe.

During the week people come here to chat, so they keep the music low til 11pm and folks just get on and do their thing, there’s no preening or flirting or ostentation, it’s actually really pleasant.

The biggest bee in my bonnet about HK bars is that I can’t hear myself think, let alone talk, and I get more and more uncomfortable and frustrated the louder and busier bars get. That’s probably why I like M1NT over other places.

Post 11pm, it gets louder, drunk and boisterous people arrive and a lot of the time the tunes really are mid 90s (but that’s my era, so I don’t care), but it’s always still a nice vibe.  There’s usually room to move, daft idiots to watch on the dance-floor, the service is really good, the waitresses are lovely and the bartenders are shit hot, plus they serve my favourite champagne – Ruinart Blanc de Blanc.

I’m just hoping that the main Chihuahua stays away from Hong Kong and doesn’t meddle so that this agreeable hiatus can continue indefinitely.

Location: 108 Hollywood Road, Central. Tel: 2980 3737

The Balcony – Finally somewhere to chill in Tai O

Review

View from The Balcony

Tai O is in desperate need of some cool.  I love this place, it’s a travesty that after the fire the locals weren’t allowed to rebuild all their stilt-houses.  Let’s all just pray to each of our gods that the Government doesn’t go ahead with its “Authentic Fishing Village” redevelopment project after the Old Police Station is finally turned into a hotel.

It IS an effing authentic fishing village you idiots!?  Have you been to Fishermen’s Wharf in Macau?  It’s horrific and more importantly completely deserted.

The architecture in Tai O is fantastic and there are plenty of lovely little houses and shops that open onto the river. Why then is there only one Hongky, in this city full of entrepreneurs, smart enough to open a cafe?

Bless them for doing it at The Balcony though, as we had a lovely beer at sunset on a Sunday watching the wading birds and boatman winging about.  The hoards leave Tai O pretty early on Sundays as there aren’t many restaurants, no bars and the majority have a minimum of an hour’s journey to get home.  You get the place to yourself and it’s great.

You can have bar snacks to go with your drinks, which is always welcome after a long hike. The balcony itself only has room for 4-5 tables, and you sit on the wooden terrace staring through the slats into the river beneath.  Love the fact that each table comes with it’s own little gold-fish bowl too.

The owner is really friendly and you can buy history books on Tai O and other little crafty bits and bobs – Crikey it’s like Lamma minus the drug dealers!

Location:  The Balcony is over the swing bridge, past all the dried seafood shops, take a right when you hit the end of the street at Fuk Moon Lam restaurant, and then about another 100m or so on your right.  86 Kat Hing St, tel: 9153 7453

Super Cute!