Tag Archives: sights

Last supper(s) in Saigon

Our time in Vietnam ended as it began: dashing around a mad, chaotic city filled with history, traffic and tempting food, wishing we had more time.

With less than 48 hours until our flight home after six long months away, we tried to strike the balance between seeing as much as possible in Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon and HCMC) and simply enjoying our last days travelling.

While it was tempting to indulge in nothing but eating and drinking, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to go to the War Remnants museum. The images and stories of the Vietnam War, its victims and continuing impact were humbling. I was moved before we even entered at the sight of the vast helicopters, tanks and other killing machines parked outside. Each room of the museum increased the weeping. The photo below is just one of hundreds of harrowing images (mostly taken by Western photojournalists) in the museum. Note the baby in the centre of the image.

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Elsewhere we were able to see evidence of modern Vietnam; an optimistic, dynamic city moving forwards.

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Luxury brands are everywhere; Vietnam is very much an emerging market.

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I love this picture of a typical super chilled xe om moto taxi driver passing the time between jobs while the city whizzes past.

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This kid is practising to be just like that when he grows up.

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Of course we left plenty of time for our favourite pastime: harebrained forays into the depths of a city to find obscure eateries. On a scuba dive in Nha Trang we met a lovely chick who was a HCMC native and fellow food lover who was happy to share her insider knowledge.

I’m convinced our new friend Phuong was our foodie fairy godmother; every place she sent us was exactly what we were after – breathtakingly good food, unpretentious settings and honest prices.

In southern Vietnam and HCMC, pho is served with far more herbs and accompaniments than its northern counterpart. The noodle soup is still the star of the show but in HCMC the supporting cast is just as important.

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Sure enough at Pho Hoa on Pasteur St the tables were laden with abundant thickets of greenery, plus all sorts of other goodies to supplement your meal.

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The cubic banana leaf packages are called “wedding cakes”. The long doughy sticks are Chinese bread, great for dunking in your soup. Home made condiments like pickled garlic and chilli sauce let you personalise your bowl as you eat.

In the middle of one of these life changing meals, I was reminded of a friendly Geordie we met in our Sydney hostel. When he learnt we were heading to Vietnam next, he wrinkled his nose and said that out of everywhere he had been in Asia, Vietnam was his least favourite. Apparently he wasn’t a fan of the cuisine which he described it as “weird meatballs in water”. This comment caused a loud CHANGE THE SUBJECT QUICK klaxon to go off in my head.

The world is a wonderfully diverse place with all kinds of people and points of view, but there is no way I can talk about food with someone who can’t appreciate a heady, fragrant broth of meaty bones, vegetables and spices simmered for hours (and perfected over generations) until the flavours became harmoniously balanced. I stuck to general weather chitchat from then on.

Phuong actually got a little giddy when she told us about Banh mi Huynh Hoa, 26 Le Thi Rieng street.

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Fresh, crunchy, featherlight rice flour baguettes are crammed with pâté, ham, pork floss and innumerable other slices of meat (I was reminded of New York style deep filled deli sandwiches), and finished with a couple of devilishly hot slices of chilli and some token cooling cucumber.

We had such a good time on the cooking course in Hoi An, we decided to sign up for another recommended lesson in HCMC.

Cyclo Resto was much smaller and more personalised than Morning Glory, so we were able to request specific recipes and learn how to make new dishes.

The “cyclo” part of the name refers to their preferred mode of transport between the market and the school…

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We had a go at winter melon and prawn soup…

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spring rolls…

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lemongrass chicken…

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snake head fish cooked in a clay pot with laksa leaves…

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green papaya salad with dried spicy beef…

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There was a ridiculous amount of food between four of us!

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Part of the lesson was fancy garnishes. I doubt I will ever feel the urge to make a kitsch swan out of a tomato but it’s impossible not to admire the chef’s knife skills.

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I may attempt the tomato rosebud however…

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Although seeing my efforts next to a professional’s, I’ll stick to the simple and cheesy cucumber heart.

Thanks Vu for helping us create a wonderful last supper to toast our travels!

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Learning to cook Vietnamese dishes in Hoi An

In the hope of being able to recreate some of the extraordinary food we’ve eaten in Vietnam when we’re back in Blighty (very soon! – sob!), Mark and I signed up for a cookery class in Hoi An.

The lesson at the Morning Glory Cookery School began early at the market – we were given the traditional conical hats to protect us from the fierce sun, and to help our teacher find us more easily in the hustle and bustle.

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This lady wears hers with far more attitude.

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Morning glory (no tittering at the back please; morning glory is a leafy green vegetable also known as water spinach, delicious stir fried with garlic and popular all over Vietnam) has hollow stems which can be split into fine strands for salads etc with this nifty tool.

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It was great having a local guide to answer all my questions in the market and point out details like the many types of noodle available.

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Bean sprout ladies

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Vegetables & fruit

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Different kinds of rice flour pancakes

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It was all too much for some…

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After an hour or so, before we too felt the need for a nap, it was back to the classroom to watch a master demonstration and then try our hand at some recipes. It felt a little like The Generation Game at times but we managed to keep up (modesty aside, we were star pupils…)

First, canh su (cabbage leaf parcels with shrimp mousse in broth)

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Then banh xeo (crispy pancake with pork, prawns and beansprouts rolled up with rice paper, green banana and herbs)

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And goi xoai (spicy green mango salad)

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I hear that the UK has had a bit of a heatwave so I’ll share the recipe for this refreshing mango salad at the end of the post.

We enjoyed the food at Morning Glory so much that we returned to their restaurant that night for their famous pork “roll it” dish.

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This region is known for its good food. Our teacher joked that men who want beautiful wives look in the North or South of Vietnam; those who want to marry a good cook come to central Vietnam to look in Hoi An. I know which I’d choose – looks fade but hunger persists!

Sure enough, outside of Morning Glory’s doors we continued to eat exceptionally well. Even the little shacks on the nearby An Bang beach served gourmet seafood treats like steamed lemongrass clams and tamarind crab. Cheaper than chips too!

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A Hoi An speciality is cau lao, a noodle dish with slices of roast pork, croutons made from deep fried squares of noodle dough, beansprouts and herbs.

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The components of the dish are assembled in little separate piles, which locals are able to mix together deftly with their chopsticks. Our attemps were a bit messier!

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The distinctive cau lao noodles make the dish special: chewy and rough in texture, a bit like a chunky Japanese soba noodle. Unlike the soupy depths of broth in pho, with cau lao you get just a dribble of cooking juices to wet the noodles.

Apparently, the dish is traditionally made using water from specific Cham-era wells in Hoi An which impart a particular flavour – I doubt all of the street stalls selling it abide by that rule these days! Even so, the ancient wells around town are guarded under lock and key for only a few lucky people to access.

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Hoi An lights up at night. The beautiful lanterns and fairy lights hanging from the trees next to the river give the place a dreamy, festival-like feel.

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Children sell candles which you can float down the river in colourful paper boats for good luck.

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As well as food, the other thing Hoi An is known for is good tailoring. I hope our expanding waistlines didn’t cause too much trouble for the tailor we chose!

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Goi Xoai (Vietnamese spicy green mango salad) from Morning Glory Cookery Class
Serves 4 as a starter

200g green mango, sliced finely
1 onion, sliced finely
1.5 cups Vietnamese mint and mint
2tsp sesame seeds, roasted
1tbsp vegetable oil
2tbsp crispy fried shallots
1tbsp lime juice
1tbsp white sugar
1tsp fish sauce
1tsp red chilli and garlic, pounded

4 rice crackers, to serve

In a bowl put mango and onion slices, 1 cup of mint, 1 tsp sesame seeds, lime juice, sugar, fish sauce, chilli & garlic mix and vegetable oil.
Mix well.
Serve on 4 small plates and garnish with the remaining mint, sesame seeds and fried shallots. Season to taste and serve with rice crackers.

Culture (and more eating) in Huế

After the buzz of city life in Hanoi, hiking with hill-tribes in Sapa and the coastal beauty of Ha Long Bay, stopping at Huế gave us a dose of culture.

The first day, we went to the Imperial enclosure to check out the citadel, the Forbidden Purple City and other historic buildings that survived American bombings.

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This statue depicts what may well be the campest guard ever…

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Thien Mu pagoda

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The second day we scrapped the idea of hiring bicycles in favour of a scooter after being reassured by another traveller how easy they were to drive. Mark was a natural and I felt totally safe being his passenger.

The scooter let us get out of town to check out some impressive tombs. The roads were long and uphill; bicycles would have been a real slog. We visited the Khan Dinh, Minh Mang and Tu Duc tombs.

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Food in Huế is excellent; the area is associated with the old royal court. Apparently at least one of the emperors was a fussy eater and helped to create a fine cuisine!

One of the most famous dishes is bún bò Huế, or noodles and beef in a spicy broth. Brilliant for waking you up and getting a sweat on!

This is one of several bowls we enjoyed while we were in Hue; other versions have more offally bits of meat in which gives a richer flavour to the broth but can be more “challenging” to eat.

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One of the best meals we’ve had in Vietnam so far was at Lien Hoa. It’s the kind of vegetarian restaurant where even the most avid carnivores wouldn’t want meat; everything was skilfully balanced and seasoned.

These guys are my new obsession: bánh bèo, or soft rice flour pancakes with crunchy toppings. I love the contrast between the textures.

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This salad’s Vietnamese name is “vấn vương thương nhớ” but the English translation made me chuckle: “separated twelve predestined affinity”. I think the meaning has to do with the fact that the components of the dish are presented in separate piles which you mix together with your chopsticks so the flavours mingle.

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Similarly, the diverse mix of experiences we have had throughout Vietnam so far have felt like a “predestined affinity”.

The Great Ha Long Bay rubbish dump

Mark gives an alternative view on Ha Long Bay

The guide books list Ha Long Bay as one of the highlights of Vietnam, unsurprising really as it is considered one of the seven wonders of the natural world. Leila’s mum even suggested to us (somewhat unsubtly) before we left the UK that this would be the perfect place to get engaged!

However, the trip was somewhat of a disappointment.

We booked a three day, two night mid-range cruise, staying on the boat the first evening and in a bungalow on Cat Ba Island the second.

It is certainly true that some of the scenery was magnificent – the huge limestone karsts, formed over something like 500 million years of deposition, erosion, sea level changes and tectonic movements, were extraordinary.

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Huge cave systems (the tour guides pointing out the “dragons” and “lions” shaped into the rock).

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The odd monkey.

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The landscape around our bungalow was particularly beautiful – opportunity for the classic photo of women in conical hats working the paddy fields.

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There are three reasons, however, for our disappointment: too many people, a brat and litter. (Edit by Leila: and mosquitoes! Ha Long Bay was where I was munched to death by the greedy blood suckers.)

Perhaps it was our fault for visiting Vietnam at the high season and for not forking out for one of the more expensive tours, but the number of tour groups was incredible.

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Nature’s beauty is best appreciated in solitude and serenity. This is why we enjoyed places like Chapada Diamantina in Brazil so much. Serene this place was not, particularly when our boat and others around it starting pumping out dodgy disco music at sundown.

The brat was an incredibly ill-behaved, shrill, screaming Russian kid, whose mother’s view of discipline was to escape to the front of the boat to chain smoke. After three days of being cooped up with this family I was close to killing them both.

But the main reason for the disappointment, which cannot be put down to poor timing, tour choices, or unfortunate companions was the litter. It was everywhere. Bottles, cans, plastic bags, the usual detritus mixed with polystyrene balls floated the oily surface of the water and littered beaches.

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We couldn’t enjoy the beautiful scenery for the ugly sight of litter in every direction we looked. We even cut a kayaking trip short as we were too disgusted with the state of the water.

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This guy was trying his best to clear what litter he could with a fishing net, but more needs to be done.

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As far as I know we paid no national park fee or tourist tax to cruise in Ha Long Bay. Fees should be introduced and spent on education and rubbish collection. Simple things like forcing all the tour boats to have bins on every deck. I don’t think ours had any, so people left their empty water bottles lying around, to be blown overboard.

Polystyrene is used in big blocks to support floating rafts throughout the bay – this should be discouraged as it breaks off and floats indefinitely in tiny crumbs. Plastic barrels, used here at a pearl farm we visited, work just as well.

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So get a grip Vietnam. If you are so proud of having one of the seven natural wonders within your borders, then treat it like one!

Memories (and some photos) of Sapa, Northwest Vietnam

Really, we are lucky it didn’t happen sooner, or that the damage wasn’t greater.

Even so, the despair hit hard.

“No no no no no! Stop stop stop!” wailed Mark as our images of Sapa flashed into oblivion, wiped from the screen of the iPad forever.

During the few awful moments between accidentally hitting “delete all” and desperately ripping the memory card attachment out of its socket, we lost most of the snapshots we took during the two day trek in Sapa, Northwest Vietnam.

So I can’t share the carefully composed shots of the water buffalo trundling along with a village boy astride its head; the sweep of rice paddies cutting into the hillsides in perfect rows; close ups of the vibrant, verdant plants; the simple and hearty feast we shared with our host family at a homestay in the middle of nowhere and the adorable local children.

Here are the few images we still have.

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Our guide was Sang, a petite 19 year old member of “Sapa Sisters”, a group of savvy local women who organise treks in the area.

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Sang is part of the Black H’mong hill tribe who still proudly wear their traditional costumes. She was great, taking us far into the countryside to escape the bigger crowds of tourists on more mainstream treks. She warned us that this option was longer and more difficult but it was worth it – from Sang’s remote and empty route we could gaze at the stunning scenery and listen to her tales of hilltribe customs in peace.

Also, we felt we should try to burn off the excesses of our Hanoi street food binge, even if we ended up as muddy as water buffalo from the number of times we slipped on the narrow balance beams between rice paddies.

We didn’t mourn the iPad incident for long at all. Losing photographs happens at some point to every traveller, via bad luck, accident or theft. It could have been much worse and even if it was, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Photographs are a wonderful way to create keepsakes out of the sights you encounter while travelling. But they are not the same as memory.

In his book The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton ponders whether the modern way of living life through a lens means we have forgotten to really see the things we are trying to capture. Do we rely so much on cameras to remember for us that we fail to pay proper attention to our surroundings?

Perhaps the loss of the photographs was a blessing in disguise; it has made us more determined to hang on to the wonderful memories we created in beautiful Sapa.

A brief stopover in Sydney

Sydney gets around 340 sunny days a year. Typically, we arrived in the midst of a torrential downpour; our first night in the city saw us sprinting to the restaurant nearest to our hostel and then begging to be seated next to the heater so we could dry out our soaking clothes.

The following morning most of the puddles had dried out and we were able to see Sydney in all its glory.

Obviously the first place we headed to was the harbour, to get the obligatory snaps of the Opera house and Sydney Harbour Bridge.

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We also took a walk around the city centre, pointing out some quintessential Aussie symbols like this kangaroo and emu statue.

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Our wanderings took us through the lush Botanic Gardens: one of the best city parks I have ever seen.

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Another lovely walk was around the coast from Bondi Beach to Coogee.

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Now we are nearing the end of our travels, Mark and I have been looking back over the places we have visited and debating which has the best scenery, food, beaches, and so on. Sydney wins “place with the most beautiful people” hands down. It’s easy to see why: the mild weather year round means active leisure is a way of life (not counting the rainstorm on our first day, the “winter” days we experienced were more than 20 degrees).

The Australians are rather literal people; place names in Sydney tend to avoid poetry or obscure references and describe at face value instead. For example, The Rocks is an area which is quite…rocky; the Snowy Mountains nearby are…snowy mountains.

We learnt that Manly, an area of Sydney which must be accessed by ferry, was so named because one of the early European settlers was impressed by the local Aborigine muscly physique.

Manly was a picturesque place to watch the sun set.

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The ferry gives you some great views of the famous landmarks, particularly after the sun goes down.

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We couldn’t leave Sydney without saying hello to some kangaroos, wallabies and koalas so off we went to Featherdale Wildlife Park. I was in my element; I couldn’t believe how friendly the animals were.

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wombat

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It’s not possible to cuddle koalas in New South Wales; you’ve got to go to Queeensland for that. Although they seem cute, fluffy and docile they have pretty savage claws so a tentative stroke was enough!

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This baby kangaroo was being handed around so it would become comfortable around humans.

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Food wise, we indulged in a Sydney institution, a “tiger” pie from Harry’s Cafe de Wheels. The iconic food cart in the Woolloomooloo area (which incidentally is probably the most fun place name to say) is plastered with loads of pictures of Harry’s celebrity fans eating their pies.

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A “tiger” is a meat pie topped with mash, proper marrowfat mushy peas and gravy.

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We couldn’t visit Sydney without spending a morning having brunch at one of Bill Granger’s legendary cafés. The eggs lived up to the hype.

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An even better treat was being able to catch up with friends on the other end of the globe – this lovely lady is Clea, who I used to work with in London.

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PS – Although we don’t have photographic proof, Mark and I both did skydives in Sydney! The plan was to skydive in Queenstown, New Zealand, but bad weather stopped play. My instructor was so fun and enthusiastic that I was seriously considering a major career change until Mark pointed out I was probably just still high on adrenalin. Fair point!

Christchurch

Mark shares his thoughts about Christchurch

Our flight out of New Zealand was from Christchurch airport. We had heard that there was not much to see in the city following the devastating earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, so we probably would not have spent long there had it not been for the very kind offer by Marcia, an old workmate of Leila’s, to stay for a couple of days, and we were delighted that we did (thanks very much Marcia, James et al!).

We forgot to take a snap of Marcia and her gang, but here is a picture of their chickens, who laid some seriously tasty eggs for us.

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The drive from Queenstown to Christchurch passed through some stunning scenery.

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5 months of travel still hasn't made me a grown up

5 months of travel still hasn’t made me a grown up

Kind of someone to put a bench here to commemorate the English and Irish Lions victory the day before!

Kind of someone to put a bench here to commemorate the English and Irish Lions victory the day before!

After a disrupted night’s sleep (we had a couple of hours kip then got back out of bed at 2am to watch Andy Murray win the Wimbledon Final – whoop!) we borrowed some bikes and headed into town.

The Kiwi custom is to build houses on one storey, so in the suburbs there was little evidence of the quakes.

We were shocked when we crossed the park to see virtually every building in the central business district either demolished or crumbling and boarded up. I cannot imagine the sadness and despair that the city’s residents must have felt when their hometown was laid to waste in this way.

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However, the spirit of the residents has meant that the city is rapidly recovering via novel solutions such as the Re:START shopping mall made of shipping containers.

Re:START shopping mall

Re:START shopping mall

We met another of Leila’s old friends Gayle with her new baby Niamh there for lunch.

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'Cardboard' cathedral

‘Cardboard’ cathedral

A sort of outdoor coffee bar area made of pallets

A sort of outdoor coffee bar area made of pallets

A common sight - a bit of colour amid the devastation

A common sight – a bit of colour amid the devastation

A very humbling experience.