Time for Olive Picking!

Now that I moved back to Amsterdam, I love to go home from time to time, especially for important occasions such as our “traditional” olive picking day!

Since last year, my father decided to join a local association of olive tree lovers (called Terre di Gropparello) – he is now part of a nice network of enthusiastic supporters. They taught us how to pick olives and what the processes behind olive oil are – we can also use the shared oil mill to produce this precious liquid.

This year, even though we did everything without the support of our masters, we had a pretty damn cool result!

Olives

There are loads of types of olives; however, all of them change colour from green to black once they are mature. If you want to produce olive oil, you should wait until the olives turn black because they become more juicy, and consequently, more liquid will be produced. However, for a spicier taste, people also add green olives – it totally depends on your personal preference.

Due to time contraints, we did not divide our olives per colour. We have a small bunch of trees, and it would make no sense to divide them per category.

The Art of Picking Olives

When picking olives, you need few basic things: nets, branch brushes, boxes for olives, stairs, loads of patience and time.

Firs of all, it is important to place the nets right at the feet of the tree. The nets are used to collect the olives ince they fall on the ground. Also, if the tree is big enough, you literally have to brush the olives away from the branches. This sounds like an easy task, but it is quite tiring and it takes a bit of practice to make sure everything is removed.

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Secondly, stairs are used to pick the olives at the very top. Since we produce olive oil for personal use, we let our trees grow, which is not the case when looking at the trees used for industrial production. There, trees are kept at the same height and machines are used to shake them to make the olives fall.

The third step is collecting the olives from the net, place them in boxes and weight them. Normally, if you have one kilo of olives, you should expect that only 10-14% becomes liquid. This is the reason why good olive oil is so expensive. It takes a lot of time and manpower to produce a very small quantity.

The Oil Mill

The oil mill is a fascinating machine that cleans the olives and smashes them to create olive oil. It literally presses the olives several times and it separets the liquid from the waste. It takes hours for this process; to give you an idea, we had to wait almost 6 hours to squeeze 94 kilos of olives! Nevertheless, the result is always incredibily rewarding.

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Our Vietnam Route

We spent two weeks in Vietnam – we moved from the capital Hanoi to Cat Ba Island which is close to the (in) famous Ha Long Bay. Afterwards, we took a train to reach the central highlands – Tam Coc, Hue, Bach Ma and Hoi An. We spent our finals days in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon – the old capital of South Vietnam – and we sailed along the Mekong Delta.

In Vietnam we were amazed by stunning, immense sceneries; we have learnt to deal with wild drivers and savage traffic jams, dynamic cities, fierce, determined but generous people, tons of Asians tourists. We understood that only patience could save us when it comes to transportation. Last but not least, our bargaining skills have now reached the TOP level – we could probably run a business at the local market.

Central-North

Since I’ve already told you about Hanoi in my previous post I’ll talk more extensively about Cat Ba Island. Here we spent the worst two days we have had so far during our holiday.

Don’t get me wrong, the island is stunning; however, it is loud, dirty and crowded, full of low-priced and packed boat tours that drive you up and down the bay. Luckily, we decided to paya bit more: totally worth it. We almost got a personal tour, since we shared our boat with only other 7 people. Also, our tour avoided Monkey Island, a popular stop were tourists are encouraged to give beers to monkeys 😢. For the ones planning to visit Vietnam, the tour is organized by Cat Ba Express.

Ha Long Bay – which means “Descending Dragon” from a local legend that tells that dragons came to help Vietnamese to fight invaders
Today, still, some parts of the Bay are dangerous due to unexploded mines placed during the Vietnam War
The breakfast is prepared directly in front of you

The Central Highlands – Tam Coc

After a very rough drive from Cat Ba to Tam Coc, we finally relaxed in this enchanting national park. As soon as we were dropped off to our stay we were able to smell the hay of the fields

This city is particularly famous for the production of rice – literally, there are tons of kilos of rice drying under the sun in every corner of the city, on the roads and in parking lots. Every space in the direct sunlight is used for this purpose, and cars just drive on it! Of course, we tried it too 😏

We decided to visit the park by scooter, and we climbed up and down temples in the tropical heat. At Tam Coc there are no hills: the ground is flat, where rice is cultivated, surrounded by karst mountains – which If you remove the rice paddies and you replace them with water, it’s like being in Ha Long Bay, with more cows and less tourists.

The Central Highlands – Hue

Since we wanted to avoid a night bus in the fear of experiencing crazy drivers for 18 hours, we decided to take the night train. This was one of the best choices ever. The train is old and charming as soon as you move on the railway you are inevitably brought back to the past.

Hue was our chill stop. We decided to visit restaurants instead of the ancients tombs; however we couldn’t avoid visiting the old imperial citadel, that was right in front of our stay.

Bonsai garden
In 1802 emperor Gia Long moved the capital from Ha Noi to Hue to unify the North and the South of the country – so the Citadel was built

The Central Highlands – Bach Ma and Hoi An

From our stay in Hue we arranged a private car to reach Bach Ma national park and then Hoi An, our next destination. Bach Ma is the mountain that gives the name to an immense national park hosting one fifth of Vietnam’s biodiversity. It is even said that some of the remaining wild tigers live in the most hidden corners of this beautiful park.

In 1930 the park became a popular resort and holidays destination among the French and the richest part of Vietnamese society. And that’s the period when the first chalets and houses started to be built in the park.

The Viet Cong dug some of their tunnels in the mountain

We decided to follow the 5 lakes trail. During our trek in the forest we were surrounded by gigantic butterflies and dragon flies, as well as other strange bugs. The lakes are little mountain ponds all connected through the same stream of water – you can also swim there.

South – Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta

Saigon is very busy – maybe even more than Hanoi – but the atmosphere here it’s totally different. The people seem to be more relaxed, less motorcycles use the sidewalks. Foremost, the city is full with small bars, cafés and restaurants, some of them are even “secret” spots, without any sign to recognize them. We found one, the rogue bar, which is specialised in crafted, local beers, and even has a rooftop space! Next to these little gems there are modern skyscrapers, and we couldn’t miss the opportunity to visit the tallest of Vietnam.

Scooter traffic jam
This man was born in 1930. He cycles everyday to the post; he is a public writer and you can ask him to write your postcards
Anything can be transported by bike
Vietnam’s highest skyscraper
In this building apartments, restaurants and cafés mix together

Around Ho Chin Minh City there are the Cu Chi Tunnels, a net of circa 200 km underground that was built to protect people from the American bombings. It was also used by Viet Congs as secret base and armoury. Villagers moved their everyday lives two meters under the ground: since the bombings were so frequent women started sewing or using the telar, there were beds and cooking spaces. We tried to walk for 100 meters in one of these tunnels. The place is so narrow, you have to crawl to move forward, and there is not a lot of oxygen. Definitely not recommended for claustrophobic people.

End of the tunnel
The Viet Cong used to hide in these holes during the bombings

Moreover, the area offers the possibility to shoot with the guns used during the war, the AK-47 and the M16. When you visit the outdoor museum, you always hear in the background people shooting, and it definitely helps you imagine how the place would look like 50 years ago.

South – Mekong Delta

We decided to join an extremely cheap tour agency to visit the Mekong Delta, and we got back a very cheap experience. We literally visited all the shops and merchandise area of the Delta, but at least we sailed through its islands and its narrow channels. And we managed to eat a lot of food for free 😏. The ones who know Marcello, our tour guide was his Asian version.

Vietnamese Chefs in Hoi An

With this post I’m breaking the chronological order I’ve been following so far because I want to talk about a city I really liked – Hoi An- and the Vietnamese cooking class we finally managed to attend!

Hoi An is settled in the centre of Vietnam, by the South Sea, and it has always been a crucial point of trade among Asia and Western countries because of its strategical location. Here the influences of several generations of traders met, and European culture mixed with local and asian cultures. This is particularly visible in the buildings of the city centre – nowadays thousands of silk or paper lanterns are enlightening the canals overlooked by nice cafes or restaurants. There’s a magic atmosphere by night!

Cooking class and much more

A part from being known as the “City of Lanterns”, Hoi An is famous for its food culture – here several cooking classes are held. We couldn’t lose the occasion to finally learn how the delicious food we see in the streets is prepared!

We decided to attend a class sponsored in our hotel, and in one morning we had the chance to join several activities, which we all reached by bike. Our first appointment was by the river – we entered in a round little boat steered by a very enthusiastic lady who was rowing following the notes of Asian classics like “Gangnam Style”. The best way to wake up at 7 am 😉

Afterwards, we visited the “Herb Village” which is a neighbourhood in the outskirts of Hoi An where the majority of fresh herbs and vegetables sold in the city are produced. This is an amazing place to visit because every household keeps its garden in perfect conditions. Everything is clean, tidy, green and the farmers are totally committed to their products. We even had our experienced as farmers!

Thomas is trying to cook a circle of dough made of rice, water and sesame seeds. The final product is a crispy rice bar which is here used as bread
We enjoyed a ride on the water buffalo, which is an animal still used in the cultivation of rice
Friends forever

Last but not least, we cooked 4 of the main Vietnamese traditional dishes. Namely, fresh and fried spring rolls, beef pho and rice pancake.

Basically, spring roll consist of a mixture of vegetables, meat or seafood and loads of spices rolled up in rice paper. Depending on the filling, dough or cooking technique its name changes, but the substance remains the same.

The pho is a soup served with beef, noodles and herbs. The version with beef is the most traditional one, but there are many more versions with different kinds of meat or vegetables. Finally, the rice pancakes are a mixture between water, rice four to which you can add anything you want, just make sure it is well deep fried once all the ingredients are there!

Rice pancakes in the making
Fresh spring rolls and rice pancakes
Pho
The squad dealing with food coma

Hanoi =/= Driving

Our initial plan looked too optimistic; we are running out of time and that’s why we have decided to fly from Vientiane to Hanoi and to skip Cambodia for the sake of the beaches in South Thailand 😉

Surprisingly, I loved Hanoi from the first seconds we entered in the capital. Hanoi is the nightmare of every driving teacher, every orderliness maniac-obsessed, or simply people that care about their lives’ safety. Nonetheless, I like it.

Thomas’ excitement when he hears the word “banh bao” which is a kind of white bread filled with something that should be meat

The majority of Hanoi’s traffic is composed of scooters and motorcycles. Thanks to the agility of this means of transportation, drivers consider themselves allowed to use sidewalks as a proper lane, or to simply use every part of the lane in both senses. Consequently, people have now a gene mutation – everyone has four eyes to detect both possible mortal dangers, as well as tourists to scam.

Together with normal traffic there is also a train that passes in the middle of the city few times per day.

The strongest storm we have had so far

What did we do in Hanoi a part from staying alive?

Hanoi was an amazing refreshing dynamic city after Laos’ tranquility. The capital has a rich historical past, and it is especially important to remember that the city is the symbol of Vietnam’s fight for independence. Highlight of our visit was the Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, which was created to honour the president of Vietnam who won the fight for independence from France in 1945. He was also the main leader during the years of the secret war started by the USA.

A part from its museums, Hanoi is full of lakes where people perform street shows, and where food carts survive next to restaurants.

There is a small fan between the legs of our chef to cool down the cooker

We had the chance to visit the water puppet show. The show is performed in a pool of water, and behind the curtains puppeteers stand in the water to control the puppets using bamboo sticks. At the sides of the stage a traditional Vietnamese orchestra plays music and sings.

The show is performed in the water because it is linked with the cultivation and harvest of rice – these shows used to be performed in villages straight into the rice paddy!

Laos Here We Come!

Before crossing to Laos we decided to stay overnight in Chiang Kong to leave Thailand on Monday morning with the first boat. We took a cruise to move from Huay Xai, the first city of Laos after the border, to Luang Prabang, which is the cultural centre and former capital of the country. We sailed for two days, and we stopped for the night in a village in the middle of the forest, called Pak Beng.

Booking the cruise was the best decision ever: the boat is very spacious, you can walk, buy food and get to know everyone who is travelling with you. A plus is definitely the changing landscape: stunning mountains, thick green vegetation, small and sparse villages with houses made of bamboo and hordes of children playing by the river. Sometimes the boat stops to leave locals in the middle of nowhere – you really wonder if they will ever get home!

Luang Prabang…

is our final stop. I loved it. By many it is considered The Gem of South East Asia, and I cannot blame them. We were supposed to stay in the city for two nights, but we decided to spend there four days, good sign ;).

Our guesthouse was in the centre of the city, which is a peninsula surrounded by the majestic Mekong. In front of us, an island that can be reached with a tiny boat.

The island in front of the peninsula

Tiny boat we used to cross. We were almost in the water!

Why did I like Luang Prabang so much?

Something in the air, like every French city I have visited in my life. Laos was a French colony, and this influence is particularly visible in Luang Prabang: the houses are a mix between Laotian and French style, and the city looks more like a sleepy and friendly village, perfect to chill by the river. Since the 90s, the city is part of UNESCO for its well-conserved houses, buildings and temples.

Waterfalls and caves EVERYWHERE

We have visited three major cities in Laos: Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane, the capital. In every city we managed to explore some of the caves and natural waterfalls nearby. Especially in Vang Vieng, the number of things to see is impressive. We rented a scooter to move around – it was amazing because we enjoyed the landscape so much! It looks like being in one of the scenes of Jurassic Park, with mountains and peaks that seems to have grown out of nowhere, packs of cows running freely. The main paths run next to villages, and we were able to experience a bit of the daily life of the farmers.

We found shelter at the ticket office, it was raining so much

Inside of a cave. You cannot see it but it was HUGE

Vientiane

Vientiane is the capital of Laos, and it is only one bridge away from Thailand. Laos is very different from its neighbouring countries: people here are very relaxed (someone could say lazy) they prefer to enjoy their time instead of rushing and working more than the minimum necessary to have a decent life. The Internet connection is always extremely slow, buses are late, people take their time; Vientiane perfectly resembles its people.

I did not enjoy the city very much, however there is one thing for which is worth visiting Vientiane: the COPE museum. This museum exhaustively describes the effects of UXO – stands for the unexploded ordnance that was dropped in Lao during the secret war the US started in Vietnam. Even though neutral, Laos was the most bombed country in the world, with a total of 270 million cluster bomblets dropped, of which 80 million still unexploded; these “bombies”, as they are known here, cause circa 40 victims per years.

Clusters bombs contained hundreds of smaller bombs, called bombies, which were able to strike an area of three soccer fields

Retreat in the Jungle

For my birthday we decided to stop for a well-deserved (?) break in the mountains near Chiang Rai. We have been travelling for two weeks, but we are already incredibly tired!

Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai is famous for its White temple. I was expecting an ancient building but I was surprised: the temple has been designed by a modern artist and it is totally different from what I have seen so far. I didn’t like it that much, but at least it was different, with drawings picturing superheroes or famous artists next to the Buddha.

This artist seems to have conquered whole Chiang Rai. There are several things in the town that are made with the same style of the temple. Street lights, decorations near the roads and even a clock at the roundabout. I find it a bit kitch, but the guy appears to be very proud of his artwork.

Chiang Rai is a tiny city, and I did not find it very special. However, the town is at its best at nighttime, when the food market opens all over the city and the smell of steam rice, which is an everyday constant, mixes with spices, garlic and fried food.

Eating out every day, multiple times per day is a normality here – people stop at food carts for a quick bite or for take away. We perfectly adapted to this habit. Also, food is ready soon after you have ordered it, and it is freshly made on spot – I’m getting so spoilt about these short waiting times.

Retreat

We decided to spend 4 days of total relax in a retreat about half-an hour drive from Chiang Rai. It turned out to be a delightful decision because we had the full centre for us alone, a part from a couple from Hong Kong. It is amazing to travel during low season! You just have to be prepared for a daily hour of rain in the middle of the afternoon, but at least there are way less people travelling, and the nature is so green and luxuriant.

During our time at the Museflower we had a daily massage, two yoga lessons per day and amazing food, which has been cultivated at the organic farm attached to the area. We literally lived in a bubble. The retreat is in the middle of the jungle, and during sunset and night we were able to listen to the nature awakening around us. Returning back to the terminal station to move to Laos was a kind of shock!

Food Corner

I was surprised when I discovered that here people eat with spoon and fork, not chopsticks as I was convinced. Actually, the fork is used to move the food on the spoon – if you join an elegant dinner you should never eat from the fork.

Also, it is common to have breakfast with noodle soup, rice or anything we would consider suitable for lunch or dinner. Eating fruits with yoghurt for example is considered western.

The day we left Chiang Rai we tried noodles for breakfast because we were in a hurry. Thomas loved it, but I cannot tell the same – eating garlic from early morn its not a thing for me;)

North Thailand

After four days of cycling and climbing up the temples we decided we had enough – time to move to the northern part of Thailand. Differently from our past travels by train, we took a bus to reach Chiang Mai. We are very impressed by the easiness to travel around Thailand when it comes to move from one city to another. There are both train and buses departing every hour and half to the main destinations. Buses are even cheaper than trains.

I loved the view from this sink

Luckily I brought a disinfectant hand gel with me, because the toilets at the station are very peculiar, and it is very rare to find some soap.

The bin on the right is used to throw away used paper toilets – the drawing system is not powerful enough. The left bin is a jar of water you use to flush the toilet.

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is the main city in the North of Thailand. Differently from Bangkok, we see many more backpackers here. The city is well-known for trekking and the elephant rescue centers nearby. Unfortunately, the rain season is starting earlier this year, and we decided to postpone these activities (hopefully we will find a better weather somewhere else).

I don’t know what happens when any electrical problem occurs

Also, I feel a bit uncomfortable to subscribe for a day with the elephants. Apparently only few rescue center are really taking care of these majestic animals. Moreover, a real rescue center should not allow at all to ride the elephants, to reduce their stress. Consequently, a bit for the weather and a bit for the fear of giving money to careless centers, I decided to avoid it.

Vesak celebrations

However, we had the luck of being in Chiang Mai during full moon. The full moon day of May is a particularly holy day for Thai Buddhist – it is called “Vesak” or “Buddha’s birthday”. It celebrates the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha.

Again, we had proof of Thai’s welcoming kindness. While we were walking next to a temple we were suddenly invited to join the celebrations. During the whole day food was distributed for free, people were singing and dancing traditional songs.

Prayers in the temple