17 January 2019
I had, of course, completely forgotten to wake Cornelia using her magic spell, and I tried unsuccessfully to rouse her by turning on the lights and stroking her gently. It was Ian who reminded me, and I duly followed her spell and she woke up as if by magic, in a delightful mood and very excited for the day ahead! We were dressed, breakfasted and at the main lobby bang on 09:00, at which moment, a smiley, friendly-looking lady walked through the hotel. She immediately guessed that I was Mel, but I think the four year old with me may have given me away…! I immediately took to Thuy, who spoke perfect English and was, as she looked, incredibly warm and friendly.
She drove us through the streets of Halong, parked up and hey presto, as if by magic, we were suddenly in an indoor market that you wouldn’t know was there, unless you were a local. It was sensational, in all interpretations of the word, alive with people hurrying on their way, or simply browsing the vast number of stalls selling their fruit, vegetables, meats, eggs and seafood. Thuy talked us through all sorts of things, showing me and taking foods to sample. Our first stop was to check out bunches of bananas, some of which were green for offerings to please Buddha, and other more yellow, ripe ones. Apparently, you don’t want to buy bananas which are yellow with green stems; you should instead choose ones that are yellow from the top down. Also, in Vietnam, bananas aren’t peeled by opening them at one end. They are broken in half, then peeled. Thuy demonstrated and Cornelia and I each enjoyed half a banana! The next fruit we tried was a perfect mango. To me, they can sometimes taste a bit soapy, but this one was magnificent. It reminded me of when I used to pick my own papaya for breakfast in the morning, when I was in Hawaii for a couple of months working as a nanny, many years ago!
Cornelia impressed Thuy by identifying some unusual fruits, such as the jack fruit, dragonfruit and lychee (hurrah for Tropical Fruit World!) but she didn’t really want to eat anything too unusual, nibbling cautiously at the edge of a logan, then screwing up her face as politely as she could! I tried the logan and some fresh tamarind, before we bought the ingredients for our recipes today: red beetroot leaves, green bananas, eggplant (aubergine), carrots and other things that I didn’t see, as I was too busy gazing around at everything! In fact, I was so busy looking around, that I failed to spot the open drain separating various stalls and fell into it, whilst carrying Cornelia on my hip. Amazingly, I have retained all my ninja-like reactions (😂) and managed to stay upright without breaking my ankle. I just cut the side of my ankle, and actually, it was more of a graze than a cut. A lucky escape indeed!
I was carrying Bugsy because she was a bit overwhelmed by all the people who were fascinated by her blonde hair and kept approaching her, wanting to touch it. She took it with good grace and a cheery “xin chao” but when it was too much for her, I picked her up and carried her for a bit.
However, when we got to the seafood section, Cornelia was happy to get back down and investigate all the different bowls and tubs of animals: crabs; enormous fish; tiny clams; baby octopi; and squid. The squid were really interesting to look at, as there was a bowl of dead ones, and a bowl of live ones next it. The dead ones looked dead – dull eyes and brown mottled skin. But the ones that were still alive had almost luminescent eyes, and their translucent skin had mottled patches of brown that moved around as they breathed. It was quite hypnotic watching them! Finally, we passed the poor old ducks and chickens… there were several awaiting their fate, as per their plucked friends, which were now being sold on the tables… I have always ensured that Cornelia knows where meat comes from, but I was surprised that she wasn’t completely horrified by seeing it so brutally in front of her. She just said how tasty chickens are! 👍🏻
The market is open from 04:00-19:00 every day of the year, apart from the two holidays over Chinese New Year. Thuy told me that it a social place, as well as a shopping facility, where people meet to dawdle, chat and go for coffee. It would be the world’s best people-watching place! It was very funny dodging the mopeds as they drove through the market, filling huge boxes with food stuffs ready to take to the hotels!
Back in the car again, we headed to Thuy’s home and place of work: Ginger Cookery. The kitchen workplace was immaculate and most of the food prep had already been done for us. After our welcome drinks (a wonderful lemongrass potion) Cornelia and I were given aprons and we set to work. First up, the mango and tapioca pudding, which needed to chill in the fridge while we cooked the rest of the food. We got the caramelised pork in coconut water on the go, as well as the green banana and eggplant pork dish. Finally, we created my favourite dish of the day: pomelo and shrimp salad. I learned a brand new trick for using onions in salads (my pet hate, usually) – slice them really thinly, then put them in a bowl of iced water, with some sugar mixed in. This keeps them crunchy whilst reducing the pungency considerably. Cornelia was brilliant and totally engaged – stirring, adding ingredients, mixing and watching everything that was going on. Whilst she wasn’t being very adventurous in respect of eating the foods, she had a little nibble on most things, before Thuy produced a packet of Oreo’s and offered her a couple. Thuy would have happily given her the whole lot, but I insisted that two was plenty! She had the option of eating lunch with us, but had turned it down, so she wasn’t having the alternative being a packet of cookies!! She had also gone off to explore the garden (Thuy has a star fruit tree and a coconut tree, amongst others – makes our apple trees and pear trees at home seem rather dull!!) and in doing so had lost two of the three logans she’d been carrying around all day in her pocket, which she wanted to give to Ian later. I only knew she’d lost two, when I found the third one rolling around on the kitchen floor! Thankfully, Cornelia decided that Daddy would be quite happy with just one!
Once all of the food was cooked, Chi and Xhun (I’m not sure how to spell her name 🥴) dished everything up and Thuy put the final touches to it, making it look fabulous. I can’t really take any credit for it tasting even better than it looked, because it all just happened around us!
As we sat down to eat, Thuy and I discovered we shared the same birthday, so she dashed off to retrieve a couple of cold beers to celebrate. I rather wished we were staying a few more days so we could have joined her for her birthday celebrations on Saturday! How lovely that would have been! Once again, I was so happy to have made a new friend and we both hope to stay in touch. I am hoping I can persuade her over for a visit to the U.K. at some point. How amazing would that be?!
We were way over our allotted time by the end of our meal, and after photos and cuddles goodbye, Thuy drove us back to VinPearl. On the way, she stopped off at the market and came back with a bag of logans for Ian and a whole packet of Oreo’s for Cornelia. Bless her for such kindness. Cornelia couldn’t believe her luck!
Final hugs given and promises to stay in touch, Cornelia and I met Ian in the hotel lobby where he had been waiting for us for some time.
The weather hadn’t cheered up at all, and it was still cold and breezy, but it was really our last chance to go and check out SunWorld, whose bright lights had been twinkling at us for the last few nights. We took a taxi over there, and found the park entrance. There were several ticket options, and we thought we would have a couple of hours at Dragon Park before taking the gondola over to the SunWorld’s Ferris wheel. The gondolas are massive double-deckers, and the biggest (highest capacity) ones in the world. And apparently the pylons that hold them up are the tallest of any cable car in the world. So, there you go!
First off, I had to buy new trousers as it was bloody cold and I finally gave in to the goosebumps. Usefully and unexpectedly, the souvenir shop sold loose trousers so I kitted up and we headed out into the cold. Dragon Park was so empty, it was like having a whole theme park all to ourselves! Quite a few rides were closed, but Cornelia was able to go on most of the others either by herself or with company. No queues meant that she could on any ride she wanted as many times as she wanted. They were all brightly-coloured and obviously, she loved them. She is just the perfect age to make the most of them: old enough to want to go on her own, and young enough to find the absolute joy in choo-chooing your way around a track in a little vehicle!
There was a roller coaster ride that I was quite surprised she was allowed to go on (with me), but all credit to her… she got off saying “That ride was terrifying!” then insisted that Daddy have a go. Even he thought it was a bit hardcore (for a child…(so he says…))!
The park covers a large area, so we spent quite a long time walking around admiring the garden features. There were lots of people working there, despite the emptiness of the place, and we could imagine how busy it gets in the summer. Despite the cold, Bugsy was angling for an ice cream, and we found a little cafe on site which sold them. We sat shivering away until she’d polished it off, and we set off for the last few rides, which included the dodgems, a boat ride and a train ride before leaving. Our final new ride was a petit train around a track, that chugged very, very slowly indeed. We are convinced that it was on its last legs, as it barely seemed to move without moaning and creaking! On the way out, we passed “Paris” again, and Cornelia was keen for one more go on that, so she pootled around, this time in the little ambulance, and finally, via the gift shop (for our fridge magnet), we left Dragon Park.
It was starting to get dark, so we decided to skip the gondolas in favour of an early supper, which we took at the hotel again. The restaurant was packed out, full of the visiting GSK conference guests who had taken over the hotel. But we managed to bag our usual table, and Cornelia had her predictable spaghetti bolognese. She was getting quite tired, and couldn’t even bring herself to do her nightly dance to the music of our now-familiar trio. In fairness, she had had a very busy day, so was ready for a quick bath and bed, as was I!