Hobbiton

In 1998, when a scout knocked mr. Alexander’s door, little did he know that 16 years later his farmland near the small town of Matamata would be visited by thousands of people every single day. When mister Peter Jackson saw mr. Alexander’s farm for the first time during an aerial film location scouting trip, he knew he had found what he wanted. Rolling hills, clusters of trees, no buildings, roads or signs of electricity anywhere in sight – that area would later on become the Shire, the safe haven of Middle Earth.

Neat and tidy bunch of hobbit holes
Neat and tidy bunch of hobbit holes, visible on the last Hobbit film for whole 3 seconds.

The site building started in March 1999, and involved the New Zealand Army building a 1.5km road to transport everything in place. The 3 month filming period started late the same year. For Lord of the Rings, all props were not durable and were demolished after shooting, but for The Hobbit films, the Alexander family smelled tourism and asked to leave the set in place. Building of the current set took 2 years, and the attention to detail is impeccable. Already in 2002 Russell Alexander was conducting tours, and today the Hobbiton attracts anything between 1000-4000 visitors every single day besides Christmas Day. They have had wedding ceremonies, wedding parties and proposals with 100% success rate.

Feast outside of one of the Hobbit holes.
Feast outside of one of the Hobbit holes.

I was lucky to have the biggest Tolkien fan I have ever met as my tour guide, so I really felt like I got the best possible experience. The walk itself is totally overpriced fast stroll around the village of 37 individual hobbit holes, made with untreated timber, ply and polystyrene, a village that was kept alive just to make money, getting more and more popular every year!

Party tent.
Party tent.
PartyBusiness, the famous Bag End.
PartyBusiness, the famous Bag End.

We did learn fun facts, like that the tree above Bag End is artificially made, the leaves are made in Taiwan and it costs about 10,000$. During filming, catering was organised for 400 people every day, with three 2-course meals daily. Hobbiton has plenty of lovely plants, like apple and pear trees. In the Lord of the Rings books, however, the trees were plum trees. New Zealand plum trees are way too big and not suitable for tiny hobbits, though, so they had to pluck out all the leaves and apples from the trees, and remake it digitally to be plum trees.

The Mill, built for The Hobbit.
The Mill, built for The Hobbit.

After the tour, we were treated to a “free” special brew beer (pale ale or lager), cider or ginger beer. I opted for the cider: lovely tart and not too sweet at all. Pleasurable ending to the tour, but it would have been rather ridiculous to have to pay for the drink. The Green Dragon Inn also serves some small sweets and snacks, and the cheapest coffee I’ve seen so far in NZ ($1)!!

The baker's house, probably my favorite hobbit hole.
The baker’s house, probably my favorite hobbit hole.

Was it worth it? The fangirl in me who went to see The Two Towers in cinema 3(!) times says yes!! The rational person that I am, I knew I would have probably regretted not going, even though I found the whole thing a bit on the $$ side. Luckily I had this trip bundled together with the Waitomo caves, so I didn’t have to make two separate trips in that general direction, they are quite near each other. Apparently heaps of people who visit the village have never even seen the films, some haven’t even heard of them, before visiting. Having read the book 3 times, I reckon I can just justify my enthusiasm towards the attraction.

Saigon

I arrived in Ho Chi Minh on Friday evening after a lot of hassle in several countries, not having eaten or drunk anything since the morning. Needless to say, I was in a bit of a shock, coming from the Island of Gods to a city with a population twice as much as Finland’s. On my first night in Saigon, I just went to walk around the (backpacker) district 1, were my hostel was conveniently located, found myself some good fresh spring rolls and read the Lonely Planet to locate myself.

Great coffee and bananas for breakfast.
Great coffee and bananas for breakfast.
Bright post office, where people mainly just take pictures. Apparently they do handle mail too.
Bright post office, where people mainly just take pictures. Apparently they do handle mail too.

On my first whole day, I went to see the sights: the colonial bright yellow post office and the famous Notre Dame church. In the afternoon I decided to join a French guy from the hostel to see the famous and popular Cu Chi tunnels, where brave people of Vietnam suffered and survived during the war. The tunnels were interesting enough, and we even had a veteran as our tour guide, but the group of 80 people was a bit too much to handle. I skipped the possibility of shooting all the real guns, but did manage to crouch 40 meter way 6m underground to get the war feeling: Not pleasant.

In the evening I went to enjoy dinner at the same place we had lunch: the magnificent Saigon Vegan restaurant, cheap and amazing food from fresh ingredients! I went there 3 times in 2 days, and if I had stayed longer, I would have definitely gone more.

Fresh spring rolls for lunch and dinner, can't complain.
Fresh spring rolls for lunch and dinner, can’t complain.

Market life.
Market life.

The second day I started walking around, trying to find Chinatown with no success. All the areas I went to seemed to look more or less the same, but I did roam through some interesting and very local markets. I visited the war museum, which made me want to puke and cry a bit, showcasing pictures of the war and of mutilated people and all that. Pretty one-sided approach to the whole subject, but it was interesting to see anyway. In the afternoon some kids stopped me to practice English, which was pretty interesting since I hardly understood a word they were saying. In the evening I had dinner with another French guy at the same vegan restaurant. Om nom.

 

Beans beans beans.
Beans beans beans.
Bars from heaven.
Bars from heaven.

On the third day I woke up early morning to wait to be picked up to a cacao farm: the plans changed a bit so instead of 7 we left at 9 to visit Marou chocolate factory outside of town. After the visit we went to Mekong area, to Treasure Island by ferry to select cacao beans for Marou’s Treasure Bar. It was so much fun, and we got 300kg of top notch cacao beans. We enjoyed dinner back in HCMC, spectacular Vietnamese cuisine country-style from local ingredients, shared at the table. This magnificent meal of several small dishes cost around 12€ per person, my most expensive meal in Vietnam. I took a motorbike taxi home, and booked a Mekong Delta tour for the next day at 10.30 pm. The best thing about big cities: they never sleep.