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.

Touring Through Mekong Delta

After contemplating in several of Saigon’s tour offices for 2 days, I decided to go with the easier, cheaper and more convenient option to get to Cambodia: taking a 2 day 1 night tour to Mekong Delta. At first I didn’t even know which place in Cambodia I wanted to end up in, but after talking to a few fellow travellers I decided to aim first for Kampot, then move on to Sihanoukville.

River tourist boats.
River tourist boats.

 

The Mekong Delta tour package included visits to “local” this and that, often meaning watching Vietnamese people performing in a way or another while bunch of tourists take pictures of them and then buy whatever they’re selling. I knew in advance that this tour would wreck my nerves from time to time, but as I write this from the most bounciest ride of my life, sitting at the back of a local minivan from God knows which decade and being the only English-speaking person in sight, I know I am also experiencing something beyond the tourism.

2 of the almost 1000 types of bananas.
2 of the almost 1000 types of bananas.

 

Our tour group consisted of 28 people from all paths of life, different ages and countries. The tour guide’s every 3rd word (not exaggerating) was “my family”, and after staying in a “homestay” (more like a guesthouse in the middle of nowhere) with 5 other people, it actually felt a bit like “family” after all. The tour stared off well: after 15 mins from Saigon, some family realized that they’re in the wrong bus. As they left in a taxi to their Phom Penh ride, a Russian family from another bus joined ours. On the road, we had multiple stops to the “happy room” as our guide phrased it. Once in My Tho, we went on a river cruise to a few islands, including Dragon island and Unicorn island. First was coconut candy making (interesting but so obviously made just for tourists that it was disappointing). On another island, we saw and some took pictures with a snake and drank honey tea while the people were trying to sell us their products. On another island we had a horse carriage ride for 10 mins down a straight road, and ate some pieces of fruit while sad-looking women sang some traditional music…At one point we also had a cruise down the river in a small boat, which was actually rather pleasant.

Paddling in the river.
Paddling in the river.

We sat few hours on a bus until the 6 people who paid extra for a home stay were dropped in the middle of nowhere to go on a riverboat to our accommodation, where we would enjoy dinner with the locals (except that they didn’t join us or say a single word during our stay). The dinner was magnificent, but the whole “homestay” was complete bullshit. In the morning they provided us with the bill for drinks. Coffee at breakfast was good, but not included in the price. I understand the homestay workers: they have different people each night who come in after sunset and leave at dawn. It is rather hard trying to be friends with different people each night for years, so I get it. But the advertisement for this homestay was rather different from the truth.

Coffee in the floating market.
Coffee in the floating market.
Watermelons for lunar new year.
Watermelons for lunar new year.

 

Second day we left our lovely homestay around 7am, (though most of us had been awake more or less the whole night listening to the outdoors life and traffic from the river), to go see a local floating market. The floating market starts at 4am, so when we got there around 8 it was mostly just locals selling stuff to the few tourist boats around. Interesting to see for sure, but I’m not so sure about the authenticity.

And that's how you do it. Rice, tapioca and water, steam and dry.
And that’s how you do it. Rice, tapioca and water, steam and dry.
Rice papers drying out.
Rice papers drying.

 

 After the market we were taken to a rice paper and noodle making place, again one show with a gift shop. It was interesting to see how the rice papers and noodles are made, though. After that we had a walk to a fruit orchard, which was okay – I’ve never seen dragon fruit in the nature before! We could’v bought highly overpriced fruit at the garden, but no one did. That was the end of day 2 program, we took the boat back to Can Tho, the others went for lunch and I got a bike ride (with my backpack and 2 handbags) to the local bus station where I was hurried to the van, only to sit there for 1.5hrs even before we left towards the border town of Ha Tien.

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.

What the duck?

I am not sure how big news this is abroad, but here it has been all over the (few) magazines and newspapers (I read).

Apparently God lost his bath toy, and it floated all the way to Hong Kong.

Just chillin' like it's no one's business
Just chillin’ like it’s no one’s business

The duck has been ashore in Victoria Harbor in TST for a while now, but until today I have only seen the tip of it’s bald head from my yoga studio in Causeway Bay. That tells something about the awesome views I have in the studio – no wonder the balance postures can sometimes be a bit shaky!

Where there's one...there's more
Where there’s one…there’s more

I was not the only one to see the duck (and I most definitely did not go to the other side just for this), which is somewhat a celebrity and an icon now. Someone’s making money!

Sometimes the duck in the tub just isn't enough - specially when most of the Hong Kong houses don't even have bathtubs
Sometimes the duck in the tub just isn’t enough – specially when most of the Hong Kong houses don’t even have bathtubs

Oh someone else has noticed it, too! Here’s what CNN has to say about it. Lucky me, it’ll be here as long as I will!

Sunny Sunday stroll in Yufuin

Next to Beppu, there is a small town called Yufuin. It is a perfect location for a day trip, relaxed walk along the bustling streets.

Sunday stroll
Sunday stroll

Yufuin is old-fashioned and rather different from Beppu: along the main street you can find gift shop after another, selling specialities in various product categories (excuse me for the term, I have been studying too much marketing recently).

Successfull concept: Buy your sake and (pickled) snacks from the store, and go to the hut outside to enjoy!
Successfull concept: Buy your sake and (pickled) snacks from the store, and go to the hut outside to enjoy!

Yufuin is perfect for half-day or one day, since it can be easily walked within few hours. The area is famous ofr the Lake Kinrin as well as some onsen (though not as famous as Beppu, ha!). The style is more upscale and visitor-oriented than Beppu’s.

Famous Lake Kinrin (bit of a disappointment)
Famous Lake Kinrin (bit of a disappointment)

 

The speciality of Yufuin is korokke (croquette), but there are plenty of other novelty stores lined next to each other.

Enjoying cheesecake tofu ice cream
Enjoying cheesecake tofu ice cream

 

Most of the stores don’t hold back on samples, so there is no need to leave Yufuin with an empty stomach.

Dried persimmon outside a condiment store
Dried persimmon outside a condiment store

Of course, most of the products are locally made, on-the-spot.

Edible flower cookies, as tasty as they are pretty
Edible flower cookies, as tasty as they are pretty

 

There is also a mountain near by with a ropeway and possibility to hike, but we concentrated on the village atmosphere and food rather than exercising.