I’ve been reading Jason Kottke’s blog for over a decade now and enjoy his occasional series ‘media diet‘. I thought I might take inspiration from this because so far 2019 has been full to the brim with examples of quality television, multi-box office-busting movies and more. (I won’t go into books because I already talk about them a lot and I won’t count rewatching things as I don’t have the time to go into them all!) As we’re almost halfway through the year, this might also help keep me on track for deciding my ultimate favourites for the year when I write my ‘Best of’ post in December. I always leave something out.
When we travelled to Vietnam, I watched three-and-a-bit movies:
Bohemian Rhapsody – It’s disappointingly pedestrian, but Rami Malek was wonderful. (6/10)
Can You Ever Forgive Me? – I squealed when I recognised one of the bookstores I visited while I was in New York in 2012. McCarthy and Grant are a dynamo duo. (7/10)
Green Book – I think the criticisms against it are justified. (5/10)
Destination Wedding – I couldn’t get past the first twenty minutes. Watch instead the next Keanu Reeves (below)(N/A)
And here at home:
The Assassination of Gianni Versace – I’m sorry I ever doubted you, Darren Criss. What a performance. (7.5/10)
Captain Marvel – I saw this a while ago and thinking back I don’t remember that much about it except that nice twist with Ben Mendelsohn’s character. I like Brie Larson and hope she’s given more to work with – character development speaking – in the future. (6/10)
Avengers: Endgame – When there are so many videos online about what happened when, or timelining plot twists, or explaining character motivations, I think it points to an overall deficiency in storytelling? Or is that just me? Basically, it frustrated me. But who cares, it’ll be the biggest grossing movie of all time before long (if it’s not already). (5/10)
Game of Thrones, Season 8 – Frustrating, but I will miss it. (5/10)
Rim of the World – Unsatisfying. The story is very much more suited for a younger-age market but tonally takes itself right out of it thanks to a lot of M-rated humour. Suffers from the confusion of what it wants to be. (3/10)
Always Be My Maybe – Very cute. Who knew that seeing Keanu Reeves off-the-hook was what the world needed right now, but apparently we do. (5/10)
The Society, Season 1 – Took a few episodes to get going, but the convincing writing of teen characters and few genuine plot surprises drew me in. Riley was riveted. I hope there’s another season. (5/10)
Cargo – I’d heard that this was an under-seen and under-recognised Australian horror starring Martin Freeman, so I loaded it up once I discovered it (hopefully still is) on Netflix. If you’re a fan of the genre (or want to support local film), I recommend a watch. I cried at the end. (8/10)
Train to Busan – Slick, and very smart storytelling (7.5/10)
Lady Bird – Very relatable coming-of-age story. (8.5/10)
First Reformed – VERY spoiled for me as I’d watched a video essay/review that gave away the ending, but HOLY CRAP I was still on the edge of my seat anyway. How was Ethan Hawke not up for an Oscar? (8.5/10)
Riverdale, Season 3 – Very, very silly, but I can’t stop myself. (1/10)
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile – I think Efron is a decent actor, and I know they were going for a non-exploitative angle by not focusing on the violence, but this felt muddled and muzzled. (4/10) If you want a scarier look at Ted Bundy, watch Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (5/10)
Funny Girl – The second act is slow going, but overall enjoyable. I will forever remember the exchange when it’s said that a gentleman fits in any place and the retort was “So does a sponge”. I laughed. (6/10)
Velvet Buzzsaw – If you want to see Jake Gyllenhaal and Renee Russo together, watch Nightcrawler instead. (4/10)
Homeland, Season 7 – I thought this was the end and I was sad. BUT IT’S NOT REALLY OVER. See below! (7/10)
Normally I write a travel post full of written content and the quick video I pop together is there to supplement the material, not making much of a difference if you watch it or not (though of course, I’d never say no to the views!). Today’s case is slightly different in that the video is the more important part. Food visuals are important, and I’m not very descriptive – or patient – to talk about food too much!
I want to give a couple of shout outs to some restaurants in Hanoi.
Hanoi Garden – The only place where the meal portions outmatched us and we couldn’t eat everything. Jalus Vegan Kitchen – A great vegan option. Cinnamon Restaraunt – Literally across the road from our hotel and one of only two places we ate at twice. (The other was an American diner because the kids ‘needed a break from Vietnamese food’.) The service was impeccable, the air conditioning cool. The egg coffee you see below was from there.
I would like to begin this month’s reading recap with The World Was Whole by Fiona Wright, her latest book which proves again why she’s one of the country’s most accomplished writers. It examines themes I’ve explored in my own work – returning to home and self, and how the two are not always in sync; of keeping an intrepid, curious spirit while trying to manage chronic health challenges; and more – and it was a pleasure in this instance to reacquaint myself with the inner suburbs of Sydney, a place I continue to miss even after living in Melbourne for almost two decades, through her descriptions. And I particularly liked her essays on travelling to Iceland and China, the observations are detailed and powerful.
It’s been so long since I was at university that I’m not sure if Henry Lawson is still on the curriculum of any variant of the ‘Australian Literature 101’ classes that continue to run. It was in such class a where I first read Lawson and I liked his work well enough – but I much preferred Barbara Baynton. ‘The Drover’s Wife’ is quite a short short story and when I picked up The Drover’s Wives: 99 Reinterpretations of Henry Lawson’s Australian Classic I wondered how on earth will it yield 99 reinterpretations? Did I miss something in my original reading? Well, I shouldn’t have doubted the clever and witty talents of its author Ryan O’Neill. Especially when my son came along and picked it up, and as he flicked through kept saying, “Oh look, a PowerPoint presentation! That’s funny. Now it’s a play. Now it’s a poem.” And so on. That was when I realised its subversiveness; by examining the source, challenging parts that deserve challenging and contemporising the themes we learn more about how far we’ve come as a culture and the elasticity of texts.
One of the biggest word-of-mouth and Insta-storied books of the year so far (for me) has been My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. I confess I haven’t progressed far through it yet. I’m finding the protagonist deeply dislikable (I know this is deliberate). Perhaps I will change my mind, or just wait to read until I’m in a better mindset to absorb it. So far it feels to me like a somewhat-updated American Psycho, where everything that was transactional – relationships, materials etc. – was preferable, certainly when compared to the real. Because just what is ‘real’ in a post-post-modern world? Not a bad question to ponder.
Finally, I’m dipping in and out of Poetry 101: From Shakespeare and Rupi Kaur to Iambic Pentameter and Blank Verse, Everything You Need to Know about Poetry by Susan Dalzell. I’ve said before that I like ‘how to’ writing books, for my own reference and because when I teach I’m sometimes asked for recommendations. When it came to poetry, my list needs a bit of expansion. In this case, it offers a condensed history of the form from the ancients through to Rupi Kaur and the generation of digital poets. Handy for students wanting an ‘in’ contextually, but there are next to no exercises for budding writers.
This is part three of the series of posts to our recent trip to Vietnam. You can find the one about Ho Chi Minh here and Hoi An here.
We were told that the north of Vietnam was typically a little cooler than the south and I was looking forward to a respite from the heat. (This is saying something, as I don’t mind higher temperatures!) However, a look at the weather app on my phone showed it was going to be even hotter when we arrived in Hanoi. The only television I watched was BBC World and the weatherman commented on how a long-lasting high over south-east Asia was making things rainy in China but unseasonably warm in Vietnam. Even the locals were telling us this was unusual. This is why I was especially thankful for air-conditioning once we were on our Ha Long Bay cruise (which I’ll come to shortly). But first, we made our way to our accommodation at the Golden Lotus Luxury Hotel and discovered we were within walking distance to a number of significant tourist sites.
1. Dress appropriately when going to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Sites like Tripadvisor mention there is a dress code, but we didn’t realise how vigilantly it was enforced until we arrived. It was Easter Sunday morning and the line snaked all the way around the neighbourhood. We were in line for 45 minutes or so until we reached the area where guests were waved through to the next stage when we were pulled aside and told that since the kids had bare knees we would need to buy them a scarf or sarong if they wanted to gain admittance. You’ll see a picture of Riley in the video below with that tied around his waist.
And I only barely passed muster – my dress had a sort of cap sleeve that covered my shoulders (also not allowed to be exposed), but I would’ve needed a scarf myself if my hemline had been even a millimetre shorter. Luckily, we were allowed back into the line where we left it and not head back to the end. The reason why other people wore longer cotton pants and shirts then became much more obvious after this. Yes, the line was long but it did move along consistently and I’m glad we went.
2. Visit the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater
The good thing about the regular theatre timetable was that if you arrive only to discover you’ve just missed the show that’s about to start you only need to wait an hour or so for the next one. This is what happened to us, so we went downstairs to a very happily situated coffee house for a drink. Note the restroom at this cafe and a few others (not all) have their toilet paper located outside which you can grab as you go in. There’s also a non-compulsory donation to use the toilets. This is a good chance to use some of your smaller denomination notes which are hard to get rid of otherwise.
Anyway – the show. I admit I was ambivalent going in, but I found it charming. On top of the technical skill required to manoeuvre the puppets, it was exclusively in Vietnamese and felt like one of the most genuine experiences I’d had until that point. I didn’t understand what they were saying, but I didn’t need to. The puppets told the story.
There were a few younger children in the audience and I noticed some did get a little wriggly. One fed-up mum scooped up hers to take outside when he got a little loud. The children in the first row – where we were – were much more engaged because they could see everything, down to the bits of rigging that were tugged about during some of the sequences. If you’re worried about how your kids will fare in the same situation, maybe try getting up as close to the front as possible.
After the show, you can cross the road and visit the Ngoc Son Temple on Hoàn Kiếm Lake. Admission to the temple is a couple of Australian dollars and it’s lovely (more shots can be seen in the video).
3. Go on a Ha Long Bay Cruise
Most often, travellers organise in advance a trip to Ha Long Bay (or Halong Bay). This is what we did through Luxury Escapes – we ended up on a Bhaya Cruises boat and I have nothing but good things to say about the experience.
The drive across to Ha Long Bay took 2.5 hours and we only had to wait for about twenty minutes until we were shown to our boat. The kids were supposed to be in a conjoining room to ours, but there was a slight mixup in the room allocations. They were still just next door (on the non-conjoining side), and I admit this made me nervous. (They would be alone! In the middle of the water!) But we’d already had that experience in our Hanoi hotel, so I took this as an extra lesson I needed to learn in letting them have more independence. They’d be fine, I told myself.
(Later I got too sick to worry about it at all!)
To finish my point though – if you don’t have anything planned upon arrival, there are lots of tour companies in Hanoi where you can organise a last-minute trip and not just to Ha Long Bay but up into the mountainous areas like Sapa and more. You can also do things like cooking classes or crafts or more.
Let me be clear about something. I don’t like boats. I’m not afraid of them, or the water – it’s just that I’m prone to seasickness. And I was absolutely fine for the first five hours of the cruise. We’d gone out and explored a cave and visited a floating village and I’d watched the kids swim in the bay (what a thing to do!) and it was all smooth sailing (literally). Then the boat went around in circles for a little while trying to find a good place to drop anchor and the wind came up. That’s when I started getting woozy. And, yes, the five o’clock cocktail I drank didn’t help either.
So just before dinnertime, I took some Qwells, had a shower, put the air conditioning on, lay down in bed and tried to stop myself puking. I felt guilty I wasn’t upstairs, but as I later discovered they were just about to begin a five-course meal, it was probably best I wasn’t around all that food.
I did get a knock on the door at some point and it was the tour director holding up a tray with a bowl of pumpkin soup and some steamed rice and it was a lovely gesture. Delicious too, I managed to eat most of it. After dessert, there was squid fishing off the bow. My son was terribly excited about the whole affair and I could hear his footsteps thunder up and down the hallway outside my room as he ran off his energy. I joked that the boat had a Death on the Nile vibe about it and if you’ve ever seen the movie you’ll probably remember the running footsteps in that as well!
As I’d gone to bed so early, I was up well in time the next morning for the optional tai chi. I felt much better! And then the trip was over by 10.30am! Short and sweet.
One last thing about the food before I finish – the chef was only notified of our food requirements once we were on board. We had one vegetarian and two who don’t eat seafood. That he could pivot on short notice and provide terrific multi-course meals showed a flexibility of skills that were very much appreciated.
There’s more in the video below. It is a magical place.
Hoi An was planned as being the dedicated ‘rest’ part of our trip and I admit I anticipated this part the most. The beach! Cocktails by the pool! Buffet breakfasts! Reading on a cabana!
1. Figure out how you’re going to get around
Ahead of time, I looked up our hotel – the Boutique Hoi An Resort – on Google Maps to try and figure out if we could walk into Hoi An or not. It became pretty clear once we got there that that would be tricky.
Walking would take up to an hour. There were a few short cuts across rice fields, but you needed to know where you were going and still would need to contend with the road traffic. For this reason, bike hires were common. The hotel ran a shuttle service, but we never seemed to coordinate ourselves to catch it and it only went every two hours or so. A taxi into town cost – on average – a reasonable 98,000VND ($6.00AU), so we ended up taking these instead. We travelled as a party of five most of the time, which required us taking a larger sized taxi van. I worried this would be a problem, but it never was.
Of course, there are many accommodation options in town, but I’m so glad we opted to stay on the beach instead.
I mean – look at it.
2. Get your hotel to help you
I’m a pretty independent traveller, used to Airbnbs and googling the answers to questions on the hotel wifi rather than ringing up reception to see if they can help. Well, I had to swallow that pride the morning I went up to the front counter in Hoi An to ask them about doctors. I’d awoken with a blocked ear from swimming the previous day. Not a big deal (It happens to me a lot. I’m pretty waxy. Sexy, no?), except the ear was also quite sore and I was a little dizzy. Classic signs of an early middle ear infection.
The reception staff (who were stellar) were right on it and rang a doctor in town who told me upfront what his services would cost: 2.6 million VND for a hotel visit ($160AUD) or 2 million VND ($122AUD) to visit his clinic. I could’ve hopped in a taxi, but I thought if I was going to claim this on travel insurance anyway I could get him to come to me. He did, within the hour, syringed out the wax and left after leaving the medication for the infection he confirmed I had. I counted myself lucky.
As it turned out, I might’ve gone to him if I’d known that our travel insurance had a $250 excess. So I fell into that grey zone of being sick enough to need treatment but not being sick enough for coverage. While also being thankful that the ailment wasn’t more serious/expensive. Because we’ve been there – at least it wasn’t a broken arm, eh?
Here’s an extra tip: GET TRAVEL INSURANCE.
2. Remember there are things you can do yourself
We encountered a situation on this trip I don’t think we had before. After a morning exploring, for example, it was so hot we would have to change into fresh clothes. We’ve always been careful packers, and this conservatism (even though we bought some clothes) had us seeking out laundry services. The hotel’s was a little expensive, but there were places nearby that did laundry, charging people by the kilogram. It was cheap and it would be available to be picked up late in the afternoon on the same day.
3. Dining options aplenty
I’m going to do a separate video just about all the amazing food we had over in Vietnam. Our dinner bill would often come in between 700 – 900,oooVND ($42-55AUD) for five people, including drinks and sometimes even dessert.
Families are treated very well. We were out at dinner one night and a family nearby had a young toddler and this child was doted on by the restaurant owners. Even my big kids, now in their teenage years, were cooed over. If you have any questions or requests regarding food, the locals will do their best to help you. Sometimes you will need to clarify if ‘vegetarian’ means there’s no meat in the dish whatsoever (sometimes seafood can slip in). Our vegetarian eater did sometimes get a little tired of somewhat limited options, but that’s more indicative of a particular establishment. Tripadvisor can help you decide where to eat, but, honestly, the one place we made a reservation to go to was okay, but didn’t quite reflect the glowing reviews it had on the platform. Dining really more became one of those things you had to judge on the spot and go with your gut feeling (no joke intended).
4. Hoi An Lantern Festival – be prepared
Hoi An is famous for its tailoring/clothing industry and the Lantern Festival. The Lantern Festival is held every month in accordance with the lunar cycle, so if you’re in town during the full moon you’ll be in luck. Quite by chance, we were. You can search online for the dates to see if you can coordinate yours to match. You’ll see a bit more in the video below about it.
Logistically, I can see how it could get tricky if you have little ones. It’s not necessarily a late night – it was dark just after 7pm and things are in full swing by then – but as the town lights are turned off it could pose a challenge if someone wanders away by accident. We have a plan with our kids if that ever happens to them (stand still until someone finds you) and it might be prudent to come up with something similar if you worry about that. This goes in any foreign place, but especially if there’s an additional water hazard too.
Smaller notes can often be a pain as they don’t buy very much, but we saved ours for the very purpose of getting a paper lantern each for the kids to launch into the river. They all look lovely bobbing along on the surface, but I do wonder about their environmental impact.
Let me be clear: there were a lot of people. But it was gorgeous.
Lanterns for sale
Sunset as the locals ready themselves for the Lantern Festival.
It’s also an idea to manage children’s expectations once their lanterns go out into the water. Just in case. The flame could go out, it could get knocked over by the oar of a boat, or any other number of things. Riley experienced the frustration of having his being carried back to land on the current. Not a big thing, but I thought I’d mention it.
5. Clothes quality varies
This is where doing your research in advance comes in handy. We had shop recommendations from people before we left, but we didn’t get to visit many of them. This is when it’s important to learn to say no (politely) when you’re browsing. We ended up making a few purchases from one shop and while the kids did have one fitting, once we picked up the garments I wasn’t too satisfied with their quality. The tailor at our hotel, though, had multiple fittings and the fabrics were better quality. If you get an off-the-rack pineapple shirt or a watermelon one (there’s lots of kitsch, it’s fun), anything bright and with a lot of dye, you MUST do a colour fast wash cycle.
The case is similar with shoes. I had a few pairs specially made and I had a fitting on a pair of high heels and they just didn’t feel right. So they took them back and reinforced the heel. I’m still not 100% sure whether they’ll stand the test of time, but we’ll see.
Let me know if you’ve ever been to Hoi An. Isn’t it great?
The flight from Melbourne to Ho Chi Minh is a survivable near eight hours in length. I use the word survivable deliberately, as a person who dislikes being on a plane full-stop and really begins to struggle with any flight that goes into double-digits (not uncommon when leaving Australia). On the plus side, at least on Vietnam Airlines, we got to fly over during the day. This helps me when I’m trying to think positively about the impending experience, like it’s a day at work to be endured.
I never really allow myself to become excited about a holiday until we begin our descent, when the plane cuts through the last layer of clouds and the ground magically appears. This happened – sort of – as we approached Ho Chi Minh. The haze was thick, part pollution, but I recognised this too: heat. It was going to be stinking hot.
After a scare on the plane before we disembarked – I ‘misplaced’ our passports – we headed to the long immigration queue, and after we collected our bags I headed for customs to declare the medication I brought with me, brandishing my letter of explanation from my doctor. Although the Internet told me this was Very Important To Do, and I’m sure it was, the officer looked at my little bottle and waved me through with a sniff, turning his attention instead to the more important trolleys being wheeled past stacked high with sticky taped cardboard boxes.
Then we stepped out into the heat, a sticky sauna that even had Riley (who doesn’t sweat much) peppering the back of his t-shirt with dots of perspirations. We waited for our sister-in-law to join us (who was on a separate flight from Sydney) and then we were on our way, thanks to our driver.
We only spent a few days in Ho Chi Minh City and so I’m certainly no expert and don’t pretend to be. These tips are what I gleaned from our experience there and hopefully improve yours! Because if you don’t have a local sim card, and you’re stuck in the heat with no wi-fi, tempers can fray fast.
1. Get your visas sorted in advance (to save stress)
Our travel agent organised our visas in advance, but it is possible to do this yourself online. This is a critical step in being allowed into the country so I suggest you google the topic &/or get advice. The one thing I will add is that the Visa on Arrival queue was long when we arrived. Standing in that after a long flight would be most unappealing, so I’m glad I didn’t have to (especially as immigration is another queue on its own). Smarttraveller has information on medication, visas and more.
2. Prepare for traffic. Wild, wild traffic
Organised chaos abounds in the cities, with tens of thousands of motorbikes and cars. It’s fascinating to watch people pass by with the seemingly impossible crammed onto motorbikes – groceries, entire mobile kitchens for street food, enormous boxes, families and children. And while we were never stuck in a traffic jam, there were frequent periods of congestion. On the map, I might’ve assumed it would take about 20 minutes to get from point A to B, but it often took more than this in reality. There is also constant horn beeping, usually to warn others that you’re overtaking. Anyone with sensory sensitivities should be prepared.
3. Embrace the chaos and get out there walking
Yes, there are pedestrian crossings with green figures to show when you can walk. Do people pay attention to them? Errgh… I guess? We were warned about the traffic (see point three) and there is a great phrase we used: “Keep a steady pace and walk with confidence!” It worked. Let me explain why. Local drivers are used to weaving in and out of the way, so if you pick your moment to cross and keep your pace steady, they can anticipate where you’re going and therefore know how to avoid you. This leads into the second part – if you stop in the middle of the road like a scared animal while walking, that’s more dangerous. At least in my experience, for there were a few times I lost my concentration and didn’t know where to move to next. That’s when I got beeps and felt the hemline of my dress swish as a moped flew past. So definitely keep a hand on your little ones. I perhaps was a little overbearing on my teenagers, automatically clutching their hands whenever I felt a vehicle got too close. That annoyed them both eventually, and probably went against the guide we were trying to uphold. So I let them be and they both came home 100% intact.
4. Visit the Củ Chi Tunnels
The travel guides all talk about it, and with good reason. If you watch the video at the bottom you’ll see them in more detail.
The tours usually take five hours from start to finish – and these often include a ‘spontaneous’ trip to a lacquering factory on the way home. It’s a tight schedule that I appreciated, but I did insist on one thing. The Tunnels are situated right next to the Saigon River. When visitors arrive or leave they are encouraged to visit the toilets before moving on. I spotted the fast flowing, wide river and could tell at a distance how impressive it was.
“Are we going to go down there and look at it?” I asked.
His answer was confused. No, why?
Uh, because it looks beautiful, I thought.
“Well, can I go take a look?”
I’m glad I did. Stunning.
People being shown around in tours are offered towards the end a snack the Vietcong used to eat – steamed tapioca dipped in a blend of ground up peanuts, salt and sugar. It was good! But do take note of that if you have someone with you who has a severe peanut allergen. Peanuts crumbs are all over the tables.
One last note – you have the option of spending US$35 (approx) to go to the firing range at the tunnels to shoot a round of ten bullets. Whether or not you choose to do so is up to you (we didn’t), remember it is very loud.
5. Go to the Ben Thanh Market
The Ben Thanh Market is the largest market in Ho Chi Minh and certainly one of the country’s most historical. Like many large markets we’ve visited, such as the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, it is a powerful, even overpowering, experience for all the senses. There are sights and smells (including durian and fish, so be warned) and noises everywhere. The heat is trapped under the cover of the roof and even a large number of fans do little to circulate the air. But if you’re a shopping fan, you’ll most likely take all that in your stride in the search for a bargain – for there are many to be found. Yes, the brands may not all be authentic, but there are undoubted savings on sportswear and sneakers. Do look around because most stalls offer the same clothes and you could get a better deal just a few vendors along.
I much preferred the night markets. There is a swift transition between the day sellers and when the night sellers roll out their wares and set up. These are just outside on the street, complete with various dinner options, and with the sun’s oppressive heat gone it was a more pleasant shopping experience. Do note that while websites say these markets start at 6pm, they’re really not fully operational until 7pm.
And as we were staying a 15-minute stroll away, getting back to our hotel again was easy. We stayed at the Saigon Prince Hotel and highly recommend it.
6. Visit the War Remnants Museum
When we were getting immunised (Hepatitis A and Typhoid) before we left, our nurse asked us where we were going. Upon learning our destination, she said, “Oh you have to go to the War Remnants Museum. Just be warned – it gets more confronting the higher up the building you go.” I can see her point, but in truth, the whole museum is confronting – and heartbreaking. The exhibitions are very photo-heavy and I noticed the visiting children/teenagers (there were a lot) paid these a lot of attention; mine certainly learned a lot. But the content does get graphic.
While the exhibitions rooms on the first level and higher are air-conditioned, there are minimal seats inside and you need to go back out to the balcony area to sit and rest. Something to think about if you’re tired (we were so jetlagged) or if you’re overwhelmed and need to take a moment.
There is a coffee place (a chain called Highlands Coffee, we liked it a lot) on site and waving down a taxi on the street outside was easy.
It was a fascinating city. Intense, but wonderful. The people are so friendly. I haven’t even gone into the famous food, I will later in a separate post, but let me say it lived up to expectation. Have you been? What did you think?
This month I’m going to begin by talking about the book I’m currently reading – Imperfect by Lee Kofman. We’ve just returned from a two week holiday in Vietnam, half of which time was spent beachside at Hoi An. Before I left I was looking forward to this prime opportunity to read a book (or four); however, I found it difficult to focus once we got there – turns out a Kindle full of unread books can lead to indecision when one is in the throes of an extended period of anxiety. I eventually settled on Imperfect and the next title on this list, which I’ll come to shortly.
Kofman shared with me, for The Creative Life podcast, a little of the story of her early life in Russia and Israel and the surgeries she underwent due to a heart condition and a terrible bus accident. She explains these events (and their ramifications) in greater detail in Imperfect, while also examining western cultural attitudes about beauty, body and normality. The blend of personal storytelling while being able to cast her eye about society to draw comparisons that are intelligently discussed has won Kofman fans and acclaim in her other books and this one is no exception.
The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein has been one of the most talked-about local nonfiction titles of the past 12-18 months and for good reason. It is about Sandra Pankhurst, now a trauma cleaner and who has led an extraordinary life. One of my favourite parts of the book are the times when Krasnostein recounts Pankhurst’s interactions with her clients, letting her subject’s empathy and understanding for these struggling individuals shine through. Pankhurst admits she is no saint – and Krasnostein admits at points she is not a perfect narrator – but the self-knowledge and reflection both bring to telling the story make it one of humanity and hope. I finished feeling very moved.
Have you ever finished a book about a certain event or period in history that sends you immediately down a Google hole of further investigation? Beautiful Revolutionary by Laura Elizabeth Woollett did that to me. I knew what it was about before I picked it up (truth be told, that’s why I was interested), and it left me wanting to know even more. Not because the content was lacking – but because it was so convincing. But let me backtrack a little and explain: Beautiful Revolutionary is about Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple, tracing its rise in America and catastrophic end in the jungle in Guyana. I heard Woollett speak at a writer’s festival last year about the extensive research that went into the novel, including interviewing survivors who agreed to speak with her. This knowledge infuses the book, deepening its impact. It’s terrific. Harrowing, but terrific.
Swansea is a delightful coastal town about an hour’s drive away from Wineglass Bay. We stayed at the Swansea Beach Chalets and our cabin had direct access to the beach and a view straight across to Freycinet National Park. I would’ve liked to stay somewhere on the opposite side of the water, but due to the school holidays, there was little accommodation left. So make sure you get in early if you’re heading over in peak periods. We were advised to eat at the Bark Mill Tavern and Bakery and we did so on a number of occasions – first for dinner and then breakfast the following morning. It was great.
2. Paying for entry to the Freycinet National Park
Once we arrived at the National Park we had to pay for a daily vehicle pass, which for a car for up to eight people cost $24. There is a lot of signage for tourists, talking about the flora and fauna of the area and also advising people what to do and what NOT to do. There are a number of quite advanced hikes, but most people do the 45 minutes up to the lookout over Wineglass Bay. Adam wanted to do the longer walk which would take us down to the beach, but we decided against it because we didn’t bring water. It was beautiful up there, a postcard sort of a day, which was the opposite of a lot of the weather we’d had up until that point.
3. Take advantage of all the places you can go
After we got back to the car, we decided to explore some of the nearby destinations and I urge people to do the same – there’s so much more to see. Like Sleepy Bay, and its sapphire blue waters. If you walk the 15 minutes or so down to the bottom you find Little Gravelly Beach. The kids had a nice time playing on the rocks and exploring.
Further up the road is the Cape Tourville Lighthouse and Lookout – with views all around the local area. There is a wide inclined circuit ramp that sweeps around the top of the cliff that would suit those with some access issues, with some rest points (though not many, from memory) along the way. We leaned over the edge for a long time as we watched a large school of dolphins swim past on their way out to The Nuggets, probably hunting for food.
One last thing – if you need a toilet stop (because they’re very important when you have kids) at the Devil’s Corner Cellar Door. It has a lookout tower which rewards those who climb to the top with lovely views back across the peninsula.
If you’d like to read Part One of this series, beginning with a trip to Port Arthur, you can find it here.
I hadn’t been to Hobart since 1987. I don’t remember much – I was only eight years old at the time – but what I do remember has changed. Back then you could do a tour of the famous Cadbury chocolate factory! Sadly, not anymore. Again, what follows are tips intermingled with our travel experiences.
1. It’s a walkable city
We drove into Hobart to locate and check in to our hotel. After navigating the streets a little bit to find it, I discovered that it was on a hill, just outside the CBD. That made everything quite walkable, and that’s what we did – first to find lunch and then, right next door, we discovered a great popular culture book store called Area 52. We stayed there for a long time. Until the end of the school day, actually, and we had to fight our way down the street among hordes of teenagers as they caught their buses home. If you want to avoid that kind of congestion, perhaps avoid that time of day. We continued down Elizabeth Street, all the way down to the Brooke Street Pier and then we hung around the waterfront for a while, eating gelato. We went home via a different path to visit one of my must-see places in Hobart – the renowned Fuller’s Bookshop. And it didn’t disappoint.
2. It’s good to get your bearings early
I like getting my bearings when I’m going to be in a new city where I’ll be based for a time – that’s why an early walk, like in point 1, is important. I keep an eye out for places like pharmacists (in case someone falls ill! It’s the worse!) and grocery stores. As it turned out we had Centrepoint nearby.
Another plus about our location was that it was only a couple of blocks from the State Library of Tasmania. I always make an effort to visit a public library of any place we travel to, so I left the family in the hotel for a little while to go down and check it out.
3. Food options are good – but be careful
Food wise, within a few blocks, we ate a nice lunch at the groovy Small-fry Hobart (true to its name, the portion sizes were, sadly, small) and then a huge Chinese meal at X’ian Dumplings.
But one time we made a rookie mistake by just walking into a place that looked good without first examining the menu posted in the window. Had we done so, we would’ve discovered it really was rather expensive. Apps like Yelp really make a difference!
4. Make backup plans
By this point, the rain and cold had well and truly set in and that made it hard to get motivated to go back outside. For example, we didn’t go up Mount Wellington because we knew the view from the top would be nil. Our trip to MONA, the following day, was pre-paid so that was happening no matter what!
“In the spirit of honesty, I will say I didn’t spend as long there as I would’ve liked. It turns out that while the rest of the crew can spend an entire day inside The National Gallery in London, looking at Turner, Van Gogh and countless others, I think this was a more challenging experience, and fair enough. We did spend a lot of time in one area, drawing portraits using the ‘mirror method’ [see video below] and the kids were very happy with their work (as was I!). It was nice to be able to leave with a physical souvenir of the place.”
I feel lucky in that our kids are generally really engaged in museums and galleries. MONA is the same with some slight exceptions. There are challenging, confronting pieces (like The Great Wall of Vagina) that took some processing and honestly a lot of their pleasure came from simply navigating up and down the levels, as it is built deep into the ground. My recommendation is to definitely get the O-device and also to catch the ferry (which we didn’t do) to add to the overall experience of the day. It’s more special than tumbling out of a hire car. Next time I go, I’m catching the ferry!
6. Richmond is a must
It was still raining when we left Hobart for Richmond, stopping along the way at the Sullivans Cove distillery to go on a tour. Adam partook in the generous tastings and – as you’d expect – I drove the rest of the day. We reached Richmond at lunchtime, first making sure we stopped at that beautiful, famous sandstone bridge – Australia’s oldest surviving stone bridge (and still in use!).
We then got a lucky park and ate at The Richmond Bakery – very busy, and very humid inside due to the time of the day and all of the rain. The food was great with great country, traditional fare on offer. Especially the sweets, which we are very partial to! The public toilet facilities were good – in the one way street between the bakery and Richmond Gao – and there were a number of neat touristy gift shops around the town, which would’ve been lovely to stroll around in better weather.
It’s just over 100 km from Richmond to Swansea, where we were booked to spend the night. On the 110km per/hr straight road we’re used to if we travel along the Hume Freeway, for example, it might be tempting to think that you can know that distance over pretty quickly. However, for many parts of what we saw, the roads were quite windy and you had to slow to 60 or 40kms per/hr in towns and outer towns along the bus routes.
So when we hit the outskirts of Swansea – thanks to a big coffee at lunch – I was busting to go to the toilet. Luckily, we came past Kates Berry Farm and made a detour into the place. It has lovely views and it was nice to be able to enjoy them, as we couldn’t stop to look at the wild coastline as we made our way up due to the rain and the cold.
Come back next week for the recap of our trip to the glorious Wineglass Bay.
Port Arthur is a fascinating place to visit, full of history and surrounded by beautiful, almost brutal, landscapes. Its popularity is deserved, but there are a few tips below that will help families get the best of their experience.
Make the most of your tickets.
By the time we landed in Hobart, picked up our rental car and drove down to Port Arthur, it was already mid-afternoon and we were a little undecided as what to do. Although an admission ticket allows visitors two consecutive days of access to the site, we also wanted to go on a ghost tour that evening. Should we venture out into the rain (the predominant weather of our whole trip) to get a head start or hang around the admission building for hours?
2. Is the ghost tour for kids? The choice is up to you.
We returned to Port Arthur for a bite of dinner before the ghost tour began. The food was fine and we felt fortified to go out into the cold. While I was uncertain about the weather, I’m glad we made the effort – the rain that began in the afternoon held off for the tour and we walked around in the dark listening to the very knowledgeable and witty tour guide. I recommend it. Was it scary? Well. It depends on how jumpy you are. I’ll admit it – I am! And there were a couple of places, particularly The Accountant’s House and Parsonage, as well as the Separate Prison, where I felt a little uneasy. The kids were fine, however. Went to bed afterwards without a worry. But if they were any younger I would definitely exercise caution when considering bringing them along, and that’s basically what the website says too.
3. Be mindful of prams and little legs.
Also, when travelling the site, there are places, particularly up at the Commandant’s House (my favourite area) and the hill behind it, that aren’t very pram-friendly. That said, if you have very little ones, a pram would almost be essential for when they tire out. It is a large site and lots of walking and step-climbing is involved. If I was taking small ones, I would leave the flatter areas for last, so then you could easily push them around while they have a rest/nap.
Ticket admission also includes a 25-minute cruise around the harbour to see the Isle of the Dead and the Point Puer Boy’s Prison and I recommend you take it. There was a bit of a crowd waiting to get prime position on the ferry the day we went (trying to get out of the cold and the wet, I think), so if that sort of thing is important to you, maybe also get there early to get in line. I admit it was nice to get the chance to sit down and not everyone got a seat.
4. A note on Memorial Garden.
Finally, I’ll mention the Memorial Garden. Created as a place for remembrance for the events which happened on the site on 28 April 1996 at the site of the former Broad Arrow Café, it is a moving, dignified and beautiful space. As I remember what happened on that day very well, I already knew about its significance and wanted to pay my respects. I remember having to choose my words very well when the kids asked what it was all about because they didn’t know about the tragedy. Port Arthur handles the subject very respectfully, for example, making this brochure available for those wanting to learn more about it.
Kids rugged up against the cold
5. Stopping by Dunalley Bay for a rest stop is a good idea.
On our way down to Port Arthur, we noticed a lot of cars parked alongside the Arthur Highway, just south of the Bangor Vineyard Shed. There is a wide, sweeping aspect of the bay that is absolutely lovely. The roads are a little windy, so stopping to get a breath of fresh air on our way back to Hobart was just what we needed. Not a bad photo opportunity either.
There’s more about Port Arthur on this brief video I made for YouTube. If you’ve been I’d love to hear your thoughts about it. Above all – it’s wise to take an umbrella.