Monthly Archives: June 2013

Hotel du lac Anita Brookner

Continuing my journey through Booker Prize winners. I had a feeling that this would be a terribly British sort of book and was correct. That’s OK, I don’t mind the odd Iris Murdoch novel. But this isn’t Iris. There isn’t much of a plot to be had – it’s a character study. The main character is an author of romance novels. She has traveled to Switzerland to a private hotel occupied mainly by other women. The odd bloke or two in the novel are mainly cads.

The central character interacts with the other women and it’s all a bit sad. While it’s about their interactions, the women seem to be reliant on men for their happiness. No feminism here. After lots of boring dinners, breakfasts and lunches (plus cakes, coffee with a small dog) the reason for her journey is revealed. Not a big reveal and not a total surprise.That’s almost the entire plot.

The character portraits are great, but it’s a depressing little read. Just makes me very glad that the feminist movement came about and was so successful – although I’m not sure the author would agree with me.

A quote:

“Good women always think it is their fault when someone else is being offensive. Bad women never take the blame for anything.”


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Kafka on the Shore Haruki Murakami

Well, what can I tell you? This is kind of magic realism or kind of a metaphysical tale or kind of a retelling of the Oedipus tale or something like that. It flirts with an X files type tale, has talking cats and of course a 15 year old who is wise beyond his years. He does OK in the sex department, but perhaps it is with his mother and sister – we can make up our own mind because the author ain’t going to hand us a final chapter to tie up all the loose ends and reveal details of who was who in the story.

Murakami creates cool characters – even the incidental characters seem to drink great coffee and have intimate knowledge of various types of music (I guess he can’t help but show off his own knowledge), but this to me is part of the whole fantasy/kooky tales that he tells.

I guess I’m not making it sound attractive, but this guy can really put sentences together in a way that keeps you interested and reading. It was difficult to put this one down and even though I usually like having things tidied up at the end, I didn’t mind in this case. 

Here’s the quote:

“Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back. That’s part of what it means to be alive. But inside our heads – at least that’s where I imagine it – there’s a little room where we store those memories. A room like the stacks in this library. And to understand the workings of our own heart we have to keep on making new reference cards. We have to dust things off every once in awhile, let in fresh air, change the water in the flower vases. In other words, you’ll live forever in your own private library.”

Kafka on the Shore

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Jesus Christ Superstar

Way back in February, I bought tickets to the arena tour in Brisvegas, mainly because the Responsible Adult is a big Tim Minchin fan. Last night was the big night so off we went. I bought the original album in 1970 and had seen it in Brisbane, Sydney and London just before watching the film a couple of times in 1973. I wasn’t expecting a lot because for me, Ian Gillian just did it so well on the 1970 album that nothing has compared to it. The film was a big disappointment (sorry to all Ted Neely fans but he just wasn’t up to it). 

Anyway, the first half was pretty darn good except the surprisingly not too good John Stevens with Pilates dream. Sporty Spice owned I don’t know how to love him. The whole arena thing worked really well for me. A lot different from an intimate stage show, but the graphics and lighting were really, really good. Anyway, the second half has the big numbers and for somebody who isn’t Ian Gillian, our Jesus did very well. The two biggies are Gethsemane and Judas’ Death both of which were belted out as you would want them to be. 

The band was excellent and I particularly liked the guitarist coming out on stage to play against Tim Minchin. John Stevens had also warmed up by then and handled Trial before Pilate as you would expect from a professional like him.

Highly recommended if you can get to see it.


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Joyce Carol Oates – Mudwoman

Well that was a darn good read. It helps if you like the theme of madness in your tall tales. Mudwoman is a highly successful academic who had a rather awful start in life. We get to follow her on a little trip into a breakdown where she gets to acknowledge her past. It’s a bit like watching a car crash in very slow motion – except that it isn’t in sequence and some of it may or may not have happened. Confused? – well don’t be put off, it all works.

There is a little sub plot involving an emotionally distressed student that seems a little out of place and it can be difficult to work out what is real and what may be fantasy. But if you like dark tales this one is pretty darn noir.

Here’s the quote:

“The challenge is to resist circumstances. Any idiot can be happy in a happy place, but moral courage is required to be happy in a hellhole.”


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Fixing the Dunny

Back to the reality of home and maintenance. Our house sitter left a note with a few things that had gone wrong while we were away. One of these was a leaking dunny. The seal between the cistern and the pan had gotten old, brittle and was leaking at every flush. So I bought a new one for $2.40 and proceeded to fix the problem. Here’s how in case you ever need to do it.

Step 1. Turn off the water and flush the dunny. Undo the two nuts delivering water into the cistern and water out of the cistern. Like in the pic:


2. Loosen the screws that hold the cistern on the wall. That will allow you raise it a bit and jiggle it around so the pipe comes out. The old stuffed seal will just come away. If you compare your new seal to the old one, you may not believe they are the same size. The old one will have stretched a fair bit and look a lot bigger. Don’t panic. Stop and have a cup of tea if you need to.


3. Put your new seal onto the pipe first. A bit of vaseline will help, or you could put your new seal into hot water first. Make sure you push it back as far as the old one sat. Once it is on the pipe, turn it inside out. Like this:


4. Now you need to put everything back in place. The new seal is the hard bit to get on but if you do it last, you have the other bits holding it in place for you. Jiggle the cistern to fit the pipes back in. Do up the nuts and finally, pull back the new seal so it fits around the inlet on the pan. Phew – good on you.


5. Now you just need to give everything a good clean and you have earned big bonus points with your Responsible Adult. Have a sit down and a nice Shiraz – you earned it.





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Vietnamese street food

Before we left for Vietnam, I knew that I wanted to try the street food but first impressions were not good. The place looks grubby and busy and you don’t see spare tables and chairs. AND the tables and chairs that you do see are kiddy size plastic tables and chairs perhaps not terribly suited to large paddock workers.

But some careful observation will reveal much more. The place looks grubby because the sanitation system is different and for me, superior. Firstly, there isn’t a lot of rubbish as most food is not packaged. There are markets everywhere which operate twice daily. Fresh food comes in from farms to these markets twice daily. Any rubbish that is generated is just put on the street – that’s why you will always see it. Then people wander around sorting out whatever they can recycle. People in building frequently sweep their footpaths, then other people come around with bins on wheels to clean up anything else. It is constant motion of rubbish being put out or dropped, swept and collected. Much better than our system of creating lots of rubbish by packaging then storing our rubbish for a week waiting for a truck to take it to a big pile somewhere else.

Next, a full house is good. It means that lots of people eat there so the tucker must be OK. And no worries about your table and chairs. Just stand there for a minute or two and someone will bring out another table and chairs. If someone leave, their table and chairs are removed so the place always looks full.

So, you will be getting very fresh food and somewhere to sit, even if it is a little chair. Having said that, I’m including places that have an indoor area with grown up chairs under the heading of street food. Now a bit about the grub.

It seems that most places just sell one or two different dishes. It isn’t an a la carte style of dining. Also, the cooking process is very public so you can see what raw ingredients are being used and how it is prepared. You may find a bit of DIY is involved where you are served spring roll wrappers or green leaves to use as wrappers and you choose your own fillings. Much hilarity as it unravels somewhere between the plate and your gob, but you end up getting it down.

If you’re a meat eater – good news, there is meat in just about everything. I ordered Vegetable spring rolls one night. That meant there were vegetables in with the meat. If you like chicken – bad news, they don’t seem to breed chickens for meat so you are likely to get tough stuff – try duck. If you don’t eat meat, then the Vietnamese word for vegetarian is Chay. Try to find somewhere with this word on a sign, but they aren’t many. If you like seafood – great news, the seafood is sensational.

The food is really, really good and no need to panic when the bill comes. A meal will cost between .50c and a couple of dollars. Beer will be around $1.50 so you can eat out on loose change. If you aren’t full and want something more to eat, just wander around until you see something else to try. Anyway, enough words – here’s some pics.







1. Grilled meaty thingys – very common around the streets. I’m not a meat eater at home, but it’s pretty hard to avoid meat in Vietnam. So I just relaxed about it and these were pretty tasty.

2. Dessert drinks – pretty bland – a combination of gelatinous rice and sago. The Responsible Adult was appalled when the owner put her hand in the bowl to grab some for me. But it seems to me that the people are keen on personal hygiene. I drank the mug of stuff mainly because it was cold and I was hot.

3.Sensational rice thingys. If you see these, have a go. They brush yellow stuff on half of them and put a prawn or quails egg on the other half to make a sandwich. Fabulous with dipping sauce.

4. You don’t even have to wander off – just sit still and food will come past you. These ladies carry everything in their baskets – even a couple of stool so you can sit and eat your fruit or nuts or whatever.






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Top Temples in Vietnam

Meeting the H’Mong women in Sapa was terrific, but anther highlight of our trip was the Temples. It’s easy to get Temple overload but they surely are worth visiting. It’s again difficult to pick out one experience as THE highlight so I thought I would go for a top 5. This excludes the Cham Temples at Nha Trang and My Son as they are Hindu and a lot different to the Buddhist Temples. Again this shows that Vietnam has a lot of different experiences for travellers. Anyway, my top 5 experiences at Temples are:

5. The Happy Buddha Temple (Vinh Trang Temple near My Tho)

You get to see lots of run down little houses in Vietnam – then you get to a Temple that is magnificent. This one is visually stunning with very large Buddha statues – a couple of which sit on buildings. You can wander through the Temple and they have no problems with photographs.

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4. Lin Urg Pagoda Nha Trang.

It’s actually about 20k north of Nha Trang on the coast road. I’m still not clear on the difference between a Temple and a Pagoda. But I believe that the Buddhists don’t consider themselves to be religious as they don’t see Buddhism as a religion. In any case, it was the first time we saw orphans at a Temple. It seems that orphans are taken in, fed and educated at these places. Seems like a peaceful way to grow up



3 The Temple of Literature Hanoi

Here’s a tourist favorite. Construction started in 1070 while the Normans had just kicked the Saxons off the English throne. Our ancestors were squabbling primitive people while the Vietnamese were constructing universities. The main feature of this beautiful Temple is the stone tablets which record the names of the Doctors who graduated there. There were plenty of uni students at the Temple and they were very friendly. The Responsible Adult was asked to be photographed with a couple of them. 



2. Tien Du near Nha Trang

This Temple ticked all the boxes for us. It is out of the way and I doubt many tourists get there. It services a rural area which again seemed to be pretty poor, but their Temple is magnificent. I guess we have to take into account that these buildings are old and have amassed their collections of statues and buildings over many years. It was here that we met two orphans who showed us their English homework and took us around the place. One asked if we would like to see inside the Temple and produced a key. Like many Vietnamese children, there was no apparent adult supervision – they just get on with life. While I say that they are orphans, it seems that their family just gave them up due to economics. I surely hope that these kids get on, they were very charming.

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1. Chua Pho Quong Tanh Bin District Ho Chi Minh City

This was tops for us. Our friends in Saigon suggested we meet them there at 6.30pm for the service. Our cab driver was a bit confused, but we put him on the phone to our friends who gave directions. This is not a tourist spot but worth visiting if you have a chance. We got past the touts and a couple of beggars at the gate. One guy wanted money to release a bird from a cage full of birds. If I could speak Vietnamese, I would have told him that he shouldn’t have put the poor things in the bloody cage in the first place.

Anyway, the Responsible Adult and I went into the ground floor of the Temple. We could hear the chanting upstairs, but just took a few minutes to kneel at the downstairs alter. After my knees started complaining we got up and met our friends. We were feeling rather relaxed. Then it was upstairs to sit at the back of the mob while they got on with the chanting. Again, it was very peaceful and relaxing.

Then exit through the gift shop. They have a large amount of Buddhist goodies at very cheap prices. If you like Buddhist bling, then this is your destination. Go at night and enjoy the service.








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A fishy feed

Back to the reality of home where nobody gets up early to provide a buffet breakfast and you can’t slip out down the street for a quick and cheap feed. Five weeks in Vietnam has certainly changed my mind on fresh food. Their system is great. Anyway, I had some Red Cod to eat and cooked up a Mediterranean style dish on the trusty wood stove.

Start off by frying onion. As I love my onions, I used 2, but 1 would be more sensible. The onion was just sliced up and cooked till the rings separated.

DSC01016Then the chopped up fish (any firm fleshed fish will do) and a diced capsicum. Fry for a couple of minutes just to start the fish cooking.

DSC01017Then add some tomatoes (as it’s winter, I used a can of  tomatoes) and stock to cover. Some black olives will also go well. Then it’s time to serve. I served it in a bowl with some Cous Cous, but you could use noodles or rice or whatever. That’s the joy of being multi-cultural. A bit of grated cheese on top for me and of course a nice glass of Shiraz to go with it. White wine with fish is so sixties so if you want a red, go for it.




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H’Mong Women of Sapa – the end

We decided to go for a walk to Cat Cat village.  As we went through Sapa, two H’Mong women came up to us to ‘remind’ us that we had promised to buy from them. I don’t know that we did as we are rather careful about promises and will always try to keep them. In any case, I pointed out to them that we had a lot of H’Mong stuff. Further, I suggested that I was about to send the Responsible Adult to the square with all our stuff so that she could start selling some to tourists.

We agreed to look at their bags, wall hangings and so on but just kept telling them we had everything. Then it came to me that I had wanted to buy our eldest son a ring. Nothing in Vietnam came close to being big enough and sure enough, when I tried their rings they were all too small. But they assured me that if we came back at 1pm, they would have a ring big enough.

Sure enough, at 1pm, they had a selection of rings the right size. So I bought one which then led to the ‘You bought one from her, now you must buy one from me’ banter. After a few minutes, we came away with 4 rings.

DSC00754The Responsible Adult also bought trousers from Mai and a coat from a H’Mong who had a little store in our hotel. We bought plenty and it was always a pleasure.

There was only one sale that didn’t happen. A H’Mong approached us while we were drinking cocktails on our last evening. We gave her the story that we had everything and couldn’t take any more. But we hadn’t bought the hair comb that lots of women wear, so we looked at hers. The Responsible Adult was in fierce bargaining mode so got her down to $10, but was only offering $5. The women finally left with no sale telling us that we had made her very unhappy. Later, I asked the Responsible Adult why she hadn’t gone with the $10 as it was surely the lowest possible price. The answer was that she simply didn’t want the comb.

As we were leaving Sapa, our mini bus did the rounds of the hotels picking up tourists and who should pop up but the same H’Mong still looking for $10 for the comb. But the Responsible Adult was firm on her price so the sale did not proceed. Anyway, if you are ever in Sapa and want a hair comb – don’t pay more than a tenner for it.

DSC00751Anyway, that’s about it from me on these lovely ladies. I’m really glad I got to meet them. I did feel a bit sad for them having all those tourists poking around their town and villages, but it is also easy to see that some prosperity is rubbing off and hopefully improving their lives.




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H’Mong women of Sapa …..cont

We met Mai and Chi at 9am for our hike. They wanted to know what food we would like for lunch and then took us to the market to buy supplies. Mai found a spot for us to wait while she went for the purchases. Without us, she would get better prices, but in hindsight, I would have been happy to pay more just to watch the shopping process. In any case we got the supplies and headed off down the road with quite a few other tour groups.

Getting in supplies

Getting in supplies

The other tour groups were larger – say a dozen or so – with a tour leader who didn’t particularly look H’Mong, but may have been. They also had various H’Mong women trailing along so we were constantly asked, ‘Where you from?’, ‘How old are you?’, ‘How many children you have?’. Eventually, we asked the same questions back. Once the H’Mong worked out we were with Mai and Chi, they wandered off. Along the way, Mai pointed out various features and urged us to come back in summer to see the rice crops in flower. Sounds tempting.

A couple of women in Sapa

A couple of women in Sapa

Mai also told us that she has disabled children who require fairly constant attention from her husband. She has been married twice. The first man did not meet her expectations so she divorced him. The divorce process happens with a meeting between the two families where a fair settlement is sought. The settlement is about the dowry payment made to the brides family. It seems the going rate in Sapa is $1500 which seems like a fair amount for these people. Marriage occurs after the groom speaks to the brides family and makes a payment. Then the happy couple wear new clothes at the next full moon and after a party or two, it’s all done.

At the various stops, H’Mong women and children approached tourists to make sales. We were not approached by the women and I’m guessing Mai and Chi had somehow let them know we were off limits, but the little girls came with their friendship bracelets and the catch-phrase ‘Please buy one more’. It’s of course difficult to not buy the entire stock from each and every child.

The mobile sales showroom

The mobile sales showroom

A tourist herded away from his group

A tourist herded away from his group

When we arrived at the village, we stopped at a building that looked fairly new and guessed that it is a community hall that services tourists for their lunches. The other groups were getting stuff like chocolate biscuits, but we got local produce cooked in the local manner. I had asked for tofu as the Vietnamese tofu is pretty sensational – not sure if I will be able to buy the supermarket stuff again. Mai served this with bamboo which she had recommended we try. It was a sensational and memorable meal. We also told her we like eggs, so got a bowl of clear soup with noodles and a fried egg in it. There was so much to eat, we told them not to cook the beef that the Responsible Adult had asked for. Mai and Chi took our leftovers (they had really given us a lot to eat) and shared these with other H’Mong women. No waste.

Chi and Mai at lunch

Chi and Mai at lunch

After lunch we continued on through the village with Mai showing us the traditional crafts that are obviously still a way of life. Weaving, dying, rice hulling and so on. I particularly liked the still and had a go at the Rice Wine. Very good.  We visited a school and it was obvious that they were proud that the children were getting an education. But it seems that the children are not looking to escape the traditional way of life.

DSC00733Our journey was soon ended and of course it was exit through the gift shop. We didn’t really need anything. Mai and Chi started proceedings by giving us gifts. (They are really good at the whole sales thing about establishing rapport). We got some small coin bags and bits of jewellery, then the buying began. I have no idea what we bought apart from Chi’s necklace. But no doubt there are cushion covers and bags as well. Having no idea about how they worked together, I took Mai aside and gave her $40 for the tour and told her she needed to sort out how it would work with Chi. I think this may have been the wrong thing to do. Anyway, it’s done.

Somehow after all this, they took us across a bridge to where a mini bus was just about to leave for Sapa. Their timing was excellent.

Chi and Mai

Chi and Mai


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