Saturday, December 29

Food: The Parlour Click for more info

Who'd have thought that The Parlour - the default location for all our after-work-drinks do's - also had space to eat? Well at least I didn't until tonight.

What's more surprising is how much of a contrast it is from the much larger bar area, with its intimate yet open and breezy layout. Of course since we were there on a non-working Saturday the place was quite dead; this may have contributed to the sense of ease we had while enjoying our meal. I don't think it would have been as relaxed on a weekday.

The food itself was solid. I went for Fish Pie, which although was generous in size wasn't too much on taste. Still, it left me curious enough: the range in the menu does leave room for other dishes to perhaps be better.

At £15 per head for a shared starter and mains it wasn't too bad for the money either. So yes a decent enough place, just make sure you only head there for a Saturday night.

Monday, December 24

Film: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Click for more info

How can anyone think more LOTR a bad thing? Of course all good must come to an end, and the last chapter of the epic (was it really in 2003? Ten years ago?) did make us all want more. Lucky then that there's a whole lot of Middle earth left to cover, including the most awesome The Hobbit prelude.

The thing is, of course, that The Hobbit is a pretty small book. It's certainly not weighty enough to create a triple bill from. And yet this is exactly what we're being given, the size supplemented by stories from other books, and even some scenes plucked from thin air.

Is this a bad thing? Well no, because it is essentially more LOTR greatness, and the more of that we have the better. The acting is sublime, the effects amazing and the sense of scale awe-inspiring. Even the runtime didn't feel like the just-under-three-hours we were all dreading.

But the thing is that this just isn't The Hobbit, and for those who hold this book dear to them (which I'm not saying applies to me), the sense of lost purity might be a little jarring - particularly seeing how good a job was done of the LOTR films.

So as long as the film can be considered more a The Hobbit Remix, I thought it was pretty wonderful. Recommended.

Friday, December 21

Constellations Click for more info

The twist in this two-man play is that the same story is told not once, not twice, but multiple times, with scenes being played out over and over again with a variance in characters, as well as non linearly, with us flipping back and forth through time. Oh and look, one of the characters happens to be a Quantum Physics geek.

These two manipulated dimensions have different effects on the play. The first is on the metaphysical; to emphasise which events and situations the characters are going through are universally fundamental and which are vacuous - this is similar to how some religious people reconcile destiny and willpower, that some important things are inevitable and others are flexible.

The second dimension is pure theatrical play, telling us the conclusion of the story so we can more effectively feel the journey toward it.

The simple stage with minimal background and props underlines the strong performances and production values of Constellations, while the running time of around 70 minutes seems just about right (although if I'm honest the gimmick did wane a bit toward the end). All in all it was different enough to be enjoyable.

Monday, December 17

Film: Silver Linings Playbook Click for more info

A kooky, almost indie-feeling romcom here, with Bradley Cooper playing a guy struggling to deal with his recently diagnosed bi-polar condition. There he meets Jennifer Lawrence (who actually turns out to be quite likeable in this film), who is suffering through her own issues and once this common ground context is established, the rest of the film almost plays out automatically.

But it is well acted, and solidly put together - I would say that it felt a little too long yet I'm not quite sure where they could have trimmed the fat. A feel good movie different enough to be enjoyable too, it just about gets a recommendation from me.

Tuesday, December 11

Food: Vanilla Black Click for more info

Some restaurants are more about the experience than the food. Some may describe this as pretentious, but I think it's fair enough provided you know what you enjoy about eating out.

Take Vanilla Black for instance. Even the name oozes class. The fact that it's a fancy vegetarian restaurant adds to the certain sense of elitism that hangs about the place. And fancy it definitely is - I have to admit I was a little amused when the first thing I was asked was what name the booking I didn't make was under, particularly since the place was empty when we got there.

My other eyebrow was raised when presented with the menu. Perhaps my understanding of a la carte is wrong (very possible) but a fixed price for 2-3 courses is anything but. That's okay though - I don't actually mind set menus when they're genuine options, but what was weird was how there was no other choice of how to order. What was even cheekier was how they gave the dessert menu as a possible course after we had picked our starters and mains.

But apart from these "logistical" issues I thought Vanilla Black was pretty good. The food was decent enough - although I do think I may have picked the wrong things for myself on the whole there were some weird and wonderful tastes and textures hitting our taste buds. The place was clean cut and roomy and decorated in a classic but sophisticated style, more state homely than otherwise and the service was top notch.

Which brings us to the damage. At thirty quid per head for the two courses (we stuck to tap water), I thought it was way too expensive for what it was, and I've eaten better vegetarian for much less in many other places. Essentially, it really wasn't worth it.

So yes, a really nice place and one I would recommend for a very special occasion purely for the experience; and yet not somewhere I see myself going back to any time soon.

Monday, December 10

Film: Seven Psychopaths Click for more info

I'm sure there's some kind of self referencing commentary on film-making that a real film reviewer would pick up on while watching Seven Psychopaths. I didn't quite get it myself, choosing instead to enjoy the randomness and fun instead.

It certainly is random. We have vigilantism, dog-napping, cancer, Quakers and even Vietnamese priests making an appearance. And yet it all makes a weird kind of sense.

At most, I can call this a decent timepass; as I mentioned there's probably a deeper message I'm missing that would have unlocked even more reward... but as it stands Seven Psychos is worth a DVD recommendation at least.

Friday, December 7

Light from the Middle East Click for more info

The Victoria and Albert Museum is currently hosting a collection of photos originating from the Middle East. In fact it seems that the theme of the exhibition is more about photography (meta-photography?) than geography, and in the main it's all very modern arty and manipulated stuff. This is no bad thing albeit of a certain taste, but for those who are less adventurous and more traditional about the medium there's enough regular photography to keep interest.

Which brings me on to my picks of the exhibition. Tal Shochat's Trees were quite nice, and Hassan Hajjaj's take on fashion poignant for a cynic like me. Sadegh Tirafkan's 'Human Tapestry' was impressive from it's scale and finally I liked Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige's take on Beirut, somewhere I really want to visit one day.

The exhibition itself is well laid out, with plenty of information around the photos to keep you engaged and inline with the story being told. The whole thing is free and will take only 45 minutes to cover, so if you do check it out make sure you have supplementary plans (like checking out the museum proper). However you manage it, it's definitely worth checking out.

Sunday, December 2

SMBC Click for more info

People often look at me funny when I rant and lament about how acceptable the need for public validation has become (I mean I can sense you all doing it right now). But sometimes it takes an insightful comic to pass a message, like the one below.

I would ask you to pass this to all your mates, but I suspect you'd resort to Facebook to do it.

Saturday, December 1

Vietnam-Cambodia, Day Fifteen: Going Home

It turns out that a 4:30pm flight is pretty convenient. It gave us the whole day to mop up the remaining parts of Phnom Penh - the morning was spent checking out various palaces, monuments, temples and wats. It didn't take us too long to cover the basics (which loosely translates to "Shak was done being a tourist"), and after taking the requisite number of pictures (here) we headed back to the hotel to meet up with the rest of the party.

The final attraction we wanted to see was the Russian Market, partly to buy but mainly to soak up the local vibe, and our now host of Phnom Penh was generous enough to oblige taking us. We dipped in and out of the market - sometimes even haggling for items we did or didn't need - while picking up various bits of street food to keep us going. It was a fun way to spend our remaining moments; we finally ended up in a quaint little cafe for a lovely pre flight lunch.

And that was pretty much it for us. After picking up our luggage from the hotel and saying our goodbyes to our new friend we headed to the airport for the long flight back.

It's funny: I was feeling pretty reluctant in the preceding few weeks before this holiday and I did fly with a higher than normal level of trepidation two weeks ago. But here on the other side I am happy to admit that I was totally wrong about how this trip would turn out - whether it was my prejudice or just age that made me cautious I don't know. But what I am sure about is that both Vietnam and Cambodia are amazing places to visit, and more so the way we did so - and the pretty impossible amount we packed in - made the whole thing that much better.

Friday, November 30

Vietnam-Cambodia, Day Fourteen: Phnom Penh

The single handiest tip I can give anyone planning on checking out Phnom Penh is to secure a tuk-tuk and driver for whole days rather than on an ad hoc basis. We managed to do pretty well (I think), paying $15 for one to take the two of us around for the whole day, particularly since we would later ask him to take us of the beaten tourist path.

But for the most part tourists we were. Our first stop was the nearby school-turned-prison-turned-killing station-turned-Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (photos), a scarring insight into the conditions met by the people of Cambodia under the governance of the Khmer Rouge. Yes, it certainly was more culture porn, but the educational effect was definitely there too and the whole thing was very sad.

As we approached noon, we asked our driver to take us to a mosque we had the address of. Noor-ul-Ihsan was as regular as a mosque could be, and apart from the Cambodian language that the Friday sermon was delivered in the experience was strikingly similar to what we would find elsewhere in Asia.

And it was just as hospitable too. We got to talking to some Bangladeshi expats who were kind enough to even treat us to a wonderful home cooked lunch while we did our ummah thing. As is always the case, and indeed one of the reasons I insist on adhering to Jummah while travelling, it was brilliant to meet people living in the country we were spending time in.

The afternoon was spent visiting The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, otherwise known as The Killing Fields. This was an area where political prisoners (many from Tuol Sleng) were taken to be killed en masse. The place definitely had more of a memorial vibe to it than that of a preservation one, but there were also clear reminders of the atrocities committed there. After the museum this morning the whole day served to be pretty poignant (photos).

After meeting with the other half of our travel party (who had decided to stay on at Koh Rong for another day), we headed to the river side for a hang and dinner with another expat we had met on the island. It was a fitting way to spend our last evening in Phnom Penh, Cambodia... and our holiday as a whole.

And just for the laughs, a couple of us went for a five dollar massage at a seedy place across from our hotel. It was worth much less than what we paid, but it had to be done.

Thursday, November 29

Vietnam-Cambodia, Day Thirteen: Broken Hearts

The wonderful thing about living on a desert island is how disconnected you are. In this particular context I mean there was no plane, bus or boat to catch this morning and so no alarms set to wake us up. Bliss.

Well potentially anyway. Of course my eyes automatically opened at 6am; this was probably a good thing though seeing how short we were on time here. After catching Fajr prayer I headed straight to the beach where another guest had just finished their morning yoga.

Even though we initially felt disappointed to have had to come to this side of the island, it turned out to be a major blessing in disguise. Even though Tui Beach was relatively isolated, the beach around the Broken Heart Guest House (or BHGH) where we were staying was absolutely sublime and pretty much untouched. An amazing walk on the beach and swim later and it was time for breakfast.

The rest of our time there consisted of us chilling at the beach bar and swimming in the sea in turns. At some point we also had to have lunch, and eventually it became time to leave. We caught a smaller boat to take us back to Tui Beach, and then a bigger boat to take us back to Sihanoukville. That journey wasn't too fun: it was proper stormy (we're talking Lost kind of thing here) and the seas were quite choppy; I ended up napping with a Cambodian family in the cabin. I'm not sure how long the journey took, but when I opened my eyes the seas were much calmer and we were pulling into Sihanoukville. We managed to catch our bus okay and we arrived at Phnom Penh by midnight.

Koh Rong was pretty amazing, and the last two days (or was it more? I've lost count) was wonderfully adventurous and ad hoc. That all said, I'm still tossing up whether it was all actually worth it. The photos I took during my stay are here.

Wednesday, November 28

Vietnam-Cambodia, Day Twelve: Koh Rong

Despite having a brilliant evening last night Sihanoukville was always just a logistical pitstop. Our real destination lay a few miles away across the sea on an island called Koh Rong.

We left the hotel early to catch a choppy boat to the island. After stopping off to register at the diving centre at the main port of Tui Beach we got back on the boat to dive proper. I have to admit that it wasn't too great, but it was nice to get back under the water again after my dive in Santorini.

Back at Tui Beach, we had to wait a while longer for another, much smaller, boat to taxi us around to the western coast of the island - as we were unable to secure a place on the Tui Beach end we were forced to travel the extra distance. It was dark by the time we landed - and when I say landed I mean "wade across" since boats don't actually come to shore in such a remote place.

After the amazing Ile Aux Nattes in Madagascar I seemed to have acclimatised pretty well to beach living and in many ways I was (suitcase notwithstanding) prepared for and looking forward to the experience to come; my companions on the other hand seemed a little in shock as we clambered our way to our cabins across the jungle in the dark - someone asked about electricity a few times and I think even air-conditioning was mentioned more than once.

Still, we all seemed in much better spirits once we had a bucket bath each. And even then I was sure that things would be much better for all of us once we saw the place in daylight.

Tuesday, November 27

Vietnam-Cambodia, Day Eleven: Sihanoukville

Another day in Cambodia and another early start. Having been so productive the day before we decided to go for broke and add a whole new destination on our itinerary; and since we had yet to get some serious beach action (with the brief moment in An Bang still teasing in our memories), we blindly set off to the beachtown resort of Sihanoukville, on the southern coast of Cambodia.

I say blindly because we didn't really know how we were to get there. Despite conflicting information on the Internet (once again proving that nothing beats local information) we did find that there was direct flights from Seam Reap to Sihanoukville that would, in theory, save us bags of time. The bad news was that flights were only scheduled for three days a week. For those who want to do Cambodia under time constraints it might be worth planning for this.

So our best option was to fly to Phnom Penh as originally planned and then figure out transport to take us the remaining 4 hours it would take by road. Organising the car to Sihanoukville wasn't as onerous as we thought it would be but despite our logistical luck we got into town way too late to do anything but find a place to stay and organise the next part of the journey for tomorrow.

Since we were stuck in the hedonistic backpacker's dream, we stuck to a quick walk on the beach (full of bars and, surprisingly, fireworks) and then just hid in a bar with live music, burgers and pool. It was actually quite wonderful and I lapped it all up. We definitely hadn't done enough of this stuff during this holiday, so being forced to slow our pace was actually quite a welcome turn of events. Photos here.

Monday, November 26

Vietnam-Cambodia, Day Ten: Angkor Wat

Our earliest start yet, it was pre dawn when we headed out to Angkor Wat. This turned out to be a bit of a bust since it was way too cloudy for any decent sunrise, but I guess that's the risk of being at the mercy of the weather. Still, we made the most of our early time there amongst the largest temple in the world and although there was a fair number of people with the same idea as us it felt less busy than it could have been.

So yes, Angkor Wat et al. You've all seen it in pictures (if not in real life) so I won't bother you with the detail except to say that yes, it did feel like I was going to bump into Angelina Jolie at any minute. You can see the pictures I took here. I warn you, temples feature a lot in them.

But overall the temples were just as we had expected and if I'm honest they weren't as awe inspiring as I wanted them to be - I'm actually beginning to wonder if I'm desensitised to these kind of things now. In fact I was amazed to find out how young they were! Of course I am glad that I got to check them out anyway and after a hot morning slog, we managed to finish the main four temples (including Ta Prohm, the "Tomb Raider" temple) by around 3pm. This was quite the result considering we had budgeted the whole day for them.

Since we had time to spare a couple of us decided to take advantage of the afternoon and headed over to the nearby Mechrey. In my opinion this was just as much - if not more so - a win than the events of the day as we took our own motor boat into the floating village.

Yes, it was sparse. No, there wasn't much to do. But it ws a cool experience in terms of cultural porn and as pricey as it was (don't be expecting a fixed entry price here), it was definitely worth it. Even though sunset was a bust since it was way too cloudy. Pictures are here.

For dinner we headed over a mass Apsara dance and dinner show. It was the most touristy thing we had done that day but fun anyway (pictures here) - if any visitors decide to catch a show it will probably pay dividends to plan ahead. The day was ended with a local massage in a parlour recommended by our hotel. I won't say anything except that it was... different.

And that was our first day in Seam Reap. Looking back, I was pretty amazed at how much we actually got done... but then I remember the insane time at which we got up. Absolutely worth it though.

Sunday, November 25

Vietnam-Cambodia, Day Nine: I'll Miss Saigon

Another one of the "must sees" of HCMC are the nearby Cu Chi Tunnels.You can probably already imagine what these were, but once again it was the cultural heritage that stole the show more than any amusement we would have crawling through tunnels. If the intention was to make us empathic toward those who originally dug these tunnels then they did a good job. The tour guide in particular kept it real with his stories and assistance. Photos here.

Once we were back in HCMC proper we spent some time visiting the mosque and then, finally, found a halal restaurant to eat in (named Halal@Saigon obviously enough); and this time there was meat on the menu. Between the mosque and the restaurant we also got to meet a few members of the Cham, the indigenous Muslims from Vietnam.

As our time in HCMC, and indeed Vietnam, drew to an end so did our roles as tourists ebb away. We spent the evening wandering around aimlessly,  finally ending up sharing cupcakes in a shop across from our hotel. It was somehow a fitting end to our time in that country.

The flight to Seam Reap was speedy, and as in the case with us men as we began our decent into Cambodia the memories we collected this past week in Vietnam quickly began to fade. But I at least had seen enough to convince me to come back one day. It really was a wonderful place both culturally but especially because of the people. I don't think I've ever met a bunch of universally nice people anywhere on my travels.

We settled into the awesome Muslim run hotel we had been recommended and prepared for an early night - tomorrow is to be an early start; most likely the earliest we'll be having on this trip as we set out to experience one of the main reasons we had even come to this whole region in the first place.

Saturday, November 24

Vietnam-Cambodia, Day Eight: Ho Chi Minh City

After a week of early starts we finally treated ourselves to a bit of a lie in. Well as much of a lie in as you can have while on holiday of course. There was still tons to get through and not enough time to do it, so we made a start on exploring HCMC by foot, following the walking tour map our hotel provided us with.

Most of our time was spent on the road taking in the passing sights and sounds, like the Ben Thanh Market and City Hall, but we did drop in to and spend some time in the city museum which was decent enough. The French colonial influence was clear to see here in the south, even if it was a little jarring at time.

The rain made us retreat into an early-ish lunch at Huong Lai, which turned out to be one of our best meals in Vietnam (even though it was another nail in the coffin of our $5 per person meal budget). After lounging for a while at the restaurant we fully went back into tourist mode. The first of our big sights in the afternoon was the Independence Palace which included a very useful (and inclusive) English speaking tour... which had the added benefit of keeping us on track with the time. Photos here.

The second big attraction we visited was the wonderful yet harrowing War Remnants Museum. This was pretty much a complete Vietnamese account of the war and its consequences, in the main documented by photographs. You can check out some of the photos I took here. Between the Palace and the WR Museum we were able to get a really detailed picture of what went on during the conflict. It was pretty sad, and if we hadn't been chucked out at closing time I think I could have spent at least another hour at the Museum. Photos here.

The rest of the late afternoon was spent back on foot, soaking in the night vibe of HCMC. There were quite a few young people about tonight, some hanging with their friends, a few more watching a live football game on a big screen. The cathedral, opera house, post office and countless hotels all added to an electric yet romantic atmosphere, something that the river of course added to in spades.

We found a halal restaurant to have dinner but unfortunately they were out of stock of any chicken or beef. But that wasn't the biggest disappointment of the evening; no that came when being refused entry to the Bitexco Financial Tower Skydeck (apparently these kind of places in Asia still require a dress code). Instead we decided to call it a day and head back to our hotel - looking back we had already covered quite a bit today. Photos here and here.

Friday, November 23

Vietnam-Cambodia, Day Seven: Jummah

I've written before about how anal I can be about attending Jummah, no less so while on holiday. I think the world is now such a cosmopolitan place that a Muslim would be hard pressed to find a place to attend the Friday congregation, but I particularly try to make it while on holiday for purely ummahtic reasons. I've met more than a few friends and swapped more than a few stories during my random Jummah experiences. And this is why we found ourselves in Hanoi after starting in Hoi An - not the most efficient way to travel in Vietnam, but as Hoi An didn't seem to have any accessible mosques we had to be in Hanoi second.

Nevertheless an actual Jummah really only takes up a couple of hours of the day. To make the most of our time then we again started the day early in order to get as much done as possible before lunchtime. This was pretty well planned as we managed to mop up the mausoleum (which, ironically, was closed to viewings on a Friday), checked out Ho Chi Minh's house and the Temple of Literature which appeared to have been hosting multiple student graduation that morning.

By some random stroke of luck our hotel (which we had pretty much picked the night before we were due to arrive in Hanoi) was a two minute walk from the Hanoi mosque we had previously looked up. Jummah itself was typical; the mosque seemed to be served by expats and immigrants more than locals but there was still a distinct vibe to the proceedings. Afterwards I began chatting to some of the regular attendees to get a sense of Islam in Hanoi and Vietnam; and of course when I say "sense of Islam" I really meant somewhere we could get halal food from. Unfortunately although we found the restaurant we were told about, it had already closed in preparation for dinner.

The afternoon was pretty low key otherwise. We headed to our last tourist spot of Hanoi, Hoa Lo Prison, which for me was more of a cultural experience than a a historical one. Although it gets mixed reviews by visitors, I thought it was pretty interesting.

The late afternoon and early evening was spent hanging out in a cafe by the lake, where I took the opportunity to pop by the Ngoc Son Temple and mingle with both tourists and natives who were doing the same.

And that was pretty much it for Hanoi, as we grabbed a taxi to the airport to catch our flight to Ho Chi Minh City. We got in pretty late and missed dinner as a result. To be honest I'm way to tired to have eaten anyway.

Thursday, November 22

Vietnam-Cambodia, Day Six: Hanoi

Even while lounging on a boat we couldn't escape having to get up early. We had a clear itinerary this morning and after breakfast we headed straight for the magnificent Hang Sung Sot caves.

Second on the list for that morning was to climb the Ti Top mountain. It was quite the trek up, but the view was worth the countless steps up. After we got back down we had a quick swim on the beach as a reward.

And that was pretty much it for Halong Bay - we realised exactly why we had to get up so early this morning as we lunched at 11:30am to make it back to shore for just after noon. The return minibus journey got us back in Hanoi for around 5pm. Although I have no regrets in visiting Halong Bay, I wouldn't call it particularly amazing in terms of money or time spent.

After catching our prayers we set out to roam Hanoi. We walked through the market and Beer Street, before settling into a neat little diner for dinner, all before catching the (in)famous Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre show. That was pretty amusing, particularly if you don't know what to expect, and despite the kitsch I have to admit it was quite informative about the geography and make up of national Vietnamese society. Photos here.

After stocking up on supplies at a local supermarket, I split up with the group to finish off Hanoi on my own. I took in the tourist's checklist of the lake, the cathedral, the opera house and old gate, but also had a chance to hang out soak up some of the local atmosphere - which of course had to include a visit to the Kem Trang Tien ice cream parlour.

I have to say, I really kind of like Hanoi. Given more time it seems like a decent place to simply have hung out in. Photos here.

Wednesday, November 21

Vietnam-Cambodia, Day Five: Halong Bay

In what was now becoming a common theme for this trip, we were again up early - this time to leave Hanoi less than half a day after we had arrived. To save time we had booked a two day Halong Bay tour in Hoi An; the bay itself was three hours away from Hanoi and so although we left early we weren't going to actually be on a boat until past noon.

It was clear from pretty early on that we were literally on a tourist trail, with columns of identical beige minibuses leading us to identical white boats so that we could take part in identical tours. The first day of the tour itself was standard fare, although the boat was one of the largest I've stayed overnight on.

Halong Bay is known as one of the highlights of a trip to Vietnam, with it's pretty amazing and numerous limestone islands. Although I can see the appeal, I suspect that my sense of awe has been desensitised by the amazing things I might have seen elsewhere. That said, I never thought I would hear a Bollywood track being played on a Vietnamese junk boat.

Apart from the scenery there were some relatively cool activities to take part in, including a trip to a floating village (which essentially was just a floating platform), a 30 minute kayaking session, a quick cooking lesson and of course the obligatory sea swimming which no boat trip can ever be without. The food on board was damn good too.

We had already been impressed by the level of internet connectivity in Vietnam (it's everywhere and for example a restaurant that didn't offer free wifi with your meal was as odd as one that didn't have bathrooms), but even our boat had connectivity. A part of me was disappointed that we couldn't totally "get away" even on a boat in the middle of the sea.

The night was topped off by some Ludo and hot Take That karaoke action.

(Photos here)

Tuesday, November 20

Vietnam-Cambodia, Day Four: Tailors and Beaches

Since we were leaving today, we made a point of having an early start. We didn't have a plan per se, but I've long since realised that, with the right inclination, you can always find something to do while on holiday.

And such was the case this morning. We headed for the river, hoping for some kind if a quick boat ride. We eventually picked a motor boat over the long tail, the promise of checking out an island way too alluring to ignore. To cut a long story short it was a bit of a bust and we should have indeed chosen paddle power instead.

By mid morning we were back on shore and headed to the tailors for what we thought would be our final alterations. Turns out that this whole bespoke business really isn't suited to those on a tight schedule - my coat felt pretty wrong and of poor workmanship, and it took longer than we wanted to sort out.

So far not a great turn of events for the day. Desperate to salvage something from our final day in Hoi An, we took a cab to An Bang, an awesome beach, especially as it was something we hadn't even heard of before arriving in Hoi An. Photos here.

It was a definite bonus and we eventually stayed much longer than we should have. Racing back to Hoi An, we were late for our final-final alteration session (which took 30 minutes), which in turn made us late for our flight; luckily it turns out that Vietnamese check in desks expect latecomers and ours was still open less than 30 minutes before we were due to take off, although we were the last to check in.

All in all we had spent six or so hours at the tailors. Although what they had come up with was pretty impressive, I have to say that I'm not sure if the experience was worth the stress. What I don't have a doubt of is that it was an experience.

We were welcomed with some great weather as we landed in Hanoi. Our hotel is pretty cool too (despite the glass-walled toilet). Dinner was around the corner at Highway 4, another indulgence but again worth it as we enjoyed catfish rolls amongst other things. Unfortunately the locust was out of stock.

Even though I've not yet seen the day, I'm really enjoying Hanoi so far.

Monday, November 19

Vietnam-Cambodia, Day Three: Hoi An

So day three and we finally get to do some, you know, touristy stuff.

Our first stop of the relatively early day was to the tailor. Yes, that's right - one of the things we were told to do by many sources was to seek out a tailor and get something made. I was pretty much set on a winter coat for work - in hindsight slightly ambitious, but if I was going to get something made I thought I'd get something I actually needed, although for a minute I was tempted to go a little crazy and order whatever I could. We spent a couple of hours picking designs and getting measured up; I didn't actually think this would be the start of my holiday proper.

Hoi An has lots of little museums, temples and cultural sites to see. For mutual convenience we had to buy a five ticket set, which turned out to be plenty enough to see all the interesting bits including a dance and culture show. Oh and just in case you were wondering the heavens opened at around 3pm - thankfully it didn't last too long, although judging by the visible signs of regular flooding left behind in previous years it seems that we might have been pretty lucky that it stopped when it did.

Lunch was at Cargo, a colonial cafe-cum-restuarant on the river. We sat upstairs on the balcony and I have to say it was pretty blissful. The holiday vibe was in full swing by then and any apprehension I had about this trip had been totally discarded.

Toward the late afternoon we were due back at the tailors to check out the first cuts of our orders. I always thought that the word "minor" preceded "alterations" when it came to bespoke clothing, so I was quite surprised at how much more work was needed on what we were shown and although we were still impressed by the turnaround, I did leave glad that I hadn't gone for that suit.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped off at the restaurant across the road to take part in a cooking lesson. This is another of those things you have to do in Hoi An, although if you did want to I would recommend doing a bit of research and planning - all the food places we passed seemed to offer "cooking lessons" and I couldn't help but feel it was just an upsell for most of them, as opposed to a genuine experience that would be found in a well established cooking school. But still, the place we ended up at seemed to have a reputation for decent food; our class was more a "behind the scenes" than a proper lesson, but what we helped create was pretty decent. I have to say though it felt ironic to pay over the menu cost for food we prepared ourselves!

And that was how we ended our first real day in Vietnam. I have to say I'm really enjoying Hoi An right now - it's a place to chill more than be active and in fact the old town feel, the river, the quaint vibe and even the flooding all reminded me of a place I had been to before: Hoi An really is an Asian Paraty. Sure, the weather and hotel were against us, but it was a wonderful place and just like Paraty wasted on singles like us.

And as such we had decided to book our flights out for tomorrow.

(Photos here)

Sunday, November 18

Vietnam-Cambodia, Day Two: Are We There Yet?

For reasons that will become apparent later, we decided to start our time in Vietnam in Hoi An. This was the least efficient place to start, geographically being right in the middle of our itinerary. But we were forced to start here, for reasons that will become apparent a bit later in the week.

After picking up our visas at Hanoi airport (a handy tip for those unsure or unaware about the visa on entry arrangements Vietnam has), we took our flight to Danang, en route to Hoi An - the third leg in our journey so far. As such we entered pretty late into town. Oh and it was raining too. Not a great start.

But still, we made the most of it, heading to Morning Glory to have our first of many holiday meals. We immediately blew our food budget of $5 per head, but it was worth it after onerous journey we had just completed.

By the end of dinner, around 11pm, everything was dead. It seems that tomorrow we would start proper.

SMBC Click for more info

Ah, it's great to be told you're not alone:

Saturday, November 17

Vietnam-Cambodia, Day One: Getting There

For some reason I forgot how big the world is.

The thing is, the far east is hardly the furthest place I've been to, and yet for some reason this journey felt like it was lasting forever. Perhaps it was due to how early we set off - which seemed somewhat futile considering we're still going to arrive on Sunday, the next day.

But yes, Vietnam at last. I don't think I've ever booked a trip so far in advance - we had the tickets a fair few months ago, but it's been in my to-travel list for a fair number of years. And it didn't seem like I was alone: since we booked I have met a new person every couple of weeks who had recently been to Vietnam. So not as exotic or exclusive really... but at least we had lots and lots of tips.

Friday, November 16

Book: Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War, Michael Maclear Click for more info

Of course it's no coincidence that I've been reading a book on the Vietnam war - since I'll be visiting the region over the next couple of weeks I thought the least I could do was inform myself a little.

For this reason, Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War was a little bit of overkill. The book was more of a reference, a bit too academic for the layman read I was looking for. But in those terms it's hard to say that they book lacked in any way really.

One more grave bugbear I had with the book was the lack of linearity in the telling of events. Maclear jumps forward and back many times during the unfolding of the war, mentioning characters and events before their more in depth introductions. Until you start picking up on this, it is a little disorientating and confusing.

The above symptom as well as other minor ones make it pretty clear that the book is based on a TV documentary and the "clip" and interview format such things usually take the form of. This isn't a bad thing in itself I suppose, but again as a single point of entry into modern Vietnamese history I can't help but feel there would have been better and more focused options.

Recommended as a reference but perhaps not as a casual read.

Saturday, November 10

Tales from Arab Land Click for more info

You really can't go wrong with free events, especially if they're as good as tonight's was. This wasn't quite a play per se but literally a compilation of various stories from the Arab world as told by Alia Alzougbi - with the accidental theme of Mastery and Slavery.

We heard funny stories, tragic stories, short stories and long, some for me had more of a point than others but all were so well told a lot of the time it was more about the delivery than the content. Alia really was good at this stuff.

To be honest I've never heard of the Khayaal group so I didn't really know what to expect, but this single woman show was funny, engaging and so much fun I think I'll have to look them up.

Monday, November 5

Film: Taken 2 Click for more info

Four years is a pretty long time these days for a sequel. One would think this a good sign, that the producers of the underrated smash from 2008 were being discerning and waited for the right time and script to justify the franchise, instead of cashing in as soon as possible.

Well, that might be true in intention but it didn't quite pan out like that. The truth is that Taken 2 isn't that great - particularly when compared to the first one. I would place it at around 75% as awesome. Which is still pretty good actually, but disappointing all the same. Apart from that, the film is entirely more of the same.

Bearing that in mind, I'd still recommend it.

Saturday, November 3

Food: Homage Click for more info

"Hoity toity" were the exact words used when I told my friends I was going for dinner at the Waldorf. And they were right - I've been to a fair few fancy places in the past few years but this place lies somewhere near the top of that list. So straight away, yes, the service, d├ęcor and ambience were all pretty much flawless and worth the ticket entry alone.

There were twenty two of us there as a party, split evenly across two round tables. This of course essentially meant that there were two dinners tonight - I would probably stick to eleven maximum if you were thinking of doing something similar. But regardless of the logistics everyone had a fabulous time (some even choosing to take their place cards home as a memento. Aw).

If it's taking me a while to get to the food that's because... well it was the only thing that managed to disappoint. As is typical with these things, we were on the set menu and I had chosen the carrot and broccoli soup (a standard pick now), the chicken dish for main and ginger cake for dessert. All were above average, but in a place like this "above average" isn't quite good enough. The special non alcoholic cocktail made for us was very nice though.

After splitting some sides, the final bill came to a clean £30 per head most of which seemed to go towards the service rather than the food. But still it was worth it for the experience and company, but if all you are is hungry then I can think of a fair few places on that posh list of mine you'd be better off visiting instead.

Friday, November 2

WharfMA: Eid in the Wharf Click for more info

Ah, another year and another Eid in the Wharf. Of course now that I'm proper Wharf Alumni I have no option but to attend the event - what would all me peers say if I didn't? Still it's scary exactly how quickly the year passes.

It was the usual drill of premingling, eventing and postmingling, and once again ICSS and CWSS were there to recruit (oh, and if anyone asks I have officially handed over recruiting to the younger volunteers), all with the ongoing promise of hot canopes to keep guests going. On that note, no, the food hadn't improved much.

And neither had timekeeping it seems - we were still sitting in the auditorium till way past 10pm. Not that we weren't thoroughly entertained though. The serious stuff was really good, with a quick summary of Takaful finance, an overview of the work being done by the seminal National Zakat Foundation by Iqbal Nasim and Kristiane Backer giving us a brief life story covering the needs for the more mature in the audience. For the rest of us, we had Aatif Nawaz and Nabil Abdul Rashid providing the laughs - I really liked Aatif myself (enough to put him up alongside Imran JK), although the audience in general seemed to prefer Nabil.

But all in all it was a decent night out and good to see faces old and new enjoying the show.

Monday, October 29

Film: Skyfall Click for more info

Weird. That's pretty much the first adjective that sprang to mind when watching Skyfall. The acting, the plot, the action... it was all so weird.

Of course a Bond film isn't just any, and it has it's own standards and genre to fulfil, and to be honest Skyfall wasn't that bad; in fact it was kind of enjoyable. It just wasn't Bond. This isn't the fault of Craig - I thought he was pretty awesome in the last two - but the film itself. The opening was brilliant, but it just lost momentum after that, almost as if production had run out of money and closed half way. Funny that.

What's particularly interesting is the way in which critics and audiences are split - almost all reviews have been positive and yet anecdotally I personally don't know of anyone who didn't find this latest instalment not less than quite a bit strange.

With that in mind I'm not sure I can recommend it; well at least no further than a watch on DVD.

Saturday, October 27

Edge of Arabia: #COMETOGETHER Click for more info

Eh. So we're going to go with the assumption that in these kind of contexts "Arab" is synonymous with "contemporary Islamic", both in terms of content and the kind of audience that such a thing would attract. So yes, this exhibition was actually a collection of Islamic modern art. Cool, I can do modern art.

So we had the awesome, the crazy and the downright wasteful pieces here, some with a more obvious link to Islamic or Arabic culture than others. I really liked The shadow art of Save Manhattan 03, the embedded Hadith in The Cowboy Code and fun had with The Interactive Motion Sensitive Animation of a Bunch of Muslim Men Stuffing Themselves (which is actually my name for it). The video Mendeel Um A7mad Was hilarious, and not just because of the cross dressing actors who starred in it.

The exhibition was quick and free, making this quite the win for a Saturday afternoon. Its worth checking out, but you'll have to be quick as tomorrow is the last day it'll be on.

Monday, October 22

Film: Paranormal Activity 4 Click for more info

Yay, a new Paranormal film! I have to say, I love this stuff and my only real regret of the franchise is that I didn't go to see the third one in the cinema. It was good by the way.

But this is the fourth in the series, and yes, I can tell you now it stretches things a little. But we don't watch this kind of stuff for depth, we watch for the (possibly cheap) thrills. And on that basis PA4 doesn't disappoint.

Yes we're following teenagers now. And yes, we're using blackberries, webcam and social media to follow their lives. But those are all minor distractions really; this is just more of the same.

Recommended, and I can't wait for the next one.

Wednesday, October 17

Film: Looper Click for more info

Make no mistake here - the only thing seriously mindbending about this film is what the heck they decided to do with Gordon-Levitt's face. I mean I get the idea behind trying to make him look like (minor spoiler ahead) ol' Brucie, but to be frank the weirdness is more jarring than suspending and I reckon they would have been better off just leaving alone.

But yes, this is a film about time travel. Although not really because time travel is actually more of a story telling device than a necessity to the plot - this is no BTTF that's for sure. On the bright side this means it's pretty easy to follow (or even ignore); on the down side this means there'll be a lot of disappointed Star Trek fans who will be left unstretched. And that's not even considering the irreverent "twist" introduced later - more of a crutch to distract from the shallowness of the plot more than anything else.

But please excuse the harshness above (as a Star Trek fan, you can blame my disappointment for that). The fact is that Looper is actually a pretty decent flick as it stands; GL is good (as always) with Blunt covering the rear in the casting sense. Willis is just Willis, and those of you who put up with all of One Tree Hill (just me perhaps) will easily recognise the awesomely cute Pierce Gagnon.

Looper was relatively engaging, thoroughly enjoyable and a quite a bit of fun; just don't go in hoping to put your temporal theories to good use - there's no paradoxes here.


Monday, October 15

SMBC Click for more info

Oh my, this is why I love SMBC:

I just don't get people who don't get this. What's the point? It's like missing out on the actual taste of the food you're eating.