I wond’r if 3.6 litres is big enough? Car shopping, beaches and other chores

After a week of doing little more than eating, going on dog walks with Lilly, trips to the local supermarkets, being mesmerised by the enormous bottlos (supermarket sized shops just for alcohol) and attending Bee Gee concerts (thanks Martin and Christa), we accepted that we could no longer use jet lag as an excuse for not getting ourselves setup. Given how massive Australia is (32 times bigger than the UK), a car was our first priority.

Shopping for our wheels

Fortunately we’d already decided the type of car we were looking to get our hands on – a station wagon (an estate for our UK readers).

A station wagon with the biggest trunk (aka boot) possible, to be more exact. Why you ask? Simple: the trunk will become our bedroom while we explore Australia!

After trawling through Gumtree and making a number of calls, we lined up a couple of cars to view. Most were decent, although one was significantly newer and had more features inc electric windows and cruise control – important considering Australia’s hot weather and long straight highways. After some impressive negotiations from my Uncle, we purchased our favoured 3.6 litre Holden Commadore for an awesome 20% discount on the sale price, to the utter disappointment of the boy’s father we bought it from.

AC5BAFED-CFA4-4E40-9972-9B81B6826C08
6CDFAB64-7DCF-4A04-BAFE-44AA93D68E87
1F2D7B90-B0D1-461A-B403-9AE5A9C89D7C

Watching surf rescue on Cronulla beach

Now that we had our wheels, we were ready to start exploring Australia, our first destination was of course the nearest beach! There are heaps to choose from, but Cronulla to the south of Sydney was the obvious choice – being one of the closest and is my cousins favourite (apparently it’s where the cool kids hang out).

After a half hour drive through the sometimes intimidating highways and complex junctions, we were greeted with the stunning view of Cronulla’s beach, perfectly underlining the deep blue ocean stretching off into the horizon. Despite it still technically being winter, the weather didn’t seem to understand or accept this; it was easily 25 degrees C, and there happily wasn’t a single cloud in site. Perfect for our stroll along the nearly deserted, golden brown sandy beach.

While briefly sitting down to enjoy our packed lunch, we couldn’t help notice some commotion occurring in the water directly ahead of us – surf rescue were hauling a bloke into their boat. What are the chances of us witnessing a surf rescue within minutes of our first beach trip! Oh, hang on, why were they pushing the guy back into the water? Ahh, it was a training exercise…. Still, it gave us some entertainment, especially when nearly hitting the person in distress!

87E3AE55-65D8-466C-9073-CBBBD3B98494
44824EC5-185E-4B75-A9B1-49A1D7FFF8BD
51129AE5-0399-4459-87D9-2F9CA4BF141E

Other bits and pieces

Boring, but maybe useful for anyone else who’s also considering moving to Oz are the other chores we had to sort as part of our migration down under:

  • Bank accounts – Australia’s big 4 banks are: Commonwealth, West Pac, NAB and ANZ, some charge monthly fees, but both West Pac and NAB offer free accounts.
  • Money transfer – There are plenty to choose from, although Transfer Wise seems the most straightforward and offers decent rates, significantly better than most UK banks.
  • Mobile SIM cards – Australia has three main network providers: Optus, Telstra and Vodafone, although third parties such as Aldi offer cheaper deals, yet still use the same network.
  • Healthcare – The equivelant of the NHS is Medicare; it doesn’t cover you for everything, but does pay for medical emergencies thanks to the reciprocal agreement with the UK.
  • Car insurance – A minimum of third party insurance is mandatory, although fully comp is recommended, comparethemarket.com.au offers an easy way to find the best deals.
  • Car Rego (car registration) – Something that must be done within 30 days of purchasing, after the previous owner has submitted their papers signed by both parties.
  • Australian driving license – if driving for more than 90 days, you’re considered a resident (although only for an additional 9 months) so must purchase an Aussie license
  • Tax file number – If you’re planning on working legally down under, you’re advised to get your hands on a Tax file number, otherwise you’ll be taxed at an extortionate rate

We were now properly setup, and could proceed with some more sightseeing adventures…

I wond’r what’s down the ‘Manchester’ supermarket aisle? Making sense of our new home, Australia

Following a sleepy skyward journey from Saigon with JetStar, we soon found ourselves wandering through the arrival hall of Sydney’s Kingsford Smith Airport. With bags in hand, we made it smoothly past customs (not that we had anything to hide), and into my Uncle Martin’s waiting car.

Next stop was the local shops to pick up some food for lunch – apparently Woolworths still exists down here, although in a Tesco guise. It was nice to be back in the land of western supermarkets, although some of the signage left us a little confused!

First of all were the weird vegetable names:

  • Capsicum = Pepper

  • Zucchini = Courgette

  • Eggplant = Aubergine

But most bizarre was the mysterious sign hanging over one of the aisles, titled ‘Manchester’. Rather than finding a bunch of scally Mancunians lined up, instead we found the likes of towels and bed linen. Apparently back in the day all of Australia’s textiles were shipped over from the cotton mills of Manchester in the UK. Ahhh, mystery solved!

Upon arriving at my Uncle’s and being greeted warmly by my Auntie Christa, we were shown round what felt like a sophisticated petting zoo: First, Lilly the American Staffy then Bailey the 3 legged cat and Saskia her fellow feline chum. Next were 3 chooks (chickens to us Brits), featuring the superbly named Nugget, along with a pond of fancy goldfish and a massive aquarium full of colour. Finally were the many local cockatoos swooping down and shrieking unpleasantly, intent on steeling the chook’s food.

That night we tucked into some lovely beef stroganoff, washed down with superb Australian Chardonnay and plenty of rude jokes from Martin. It was nice to feel at home again following 6 weeks of living out of our backpacks 🙂

I wond’r if they can stop using their fu*#!%$ horns all the time? Trying to get some sleep in Saigon, Vietnam

We had finally finished with our backpacker style travelling (for the time being at least), and could now look forward to the luxuries of an aeroplane once again! Before our flight back to Saigon (AKA Ho Chi Minh City) the owner of our homestay in Phu Quoc kindly gave us a quick tour en route to the airport. Quirkily this included driving along the old runway that was now being used as a main road – it felt quite odd given the lanes were over 10 metres wide!

Once we’d collected our bags on arrival in Saigon, we needed to find some food, fast. We were both extremely hungry and so initially thought the double yellow arch in the distance was a mirage… But no, as we got closer our prayers were answered and it really was a McDonalds! We proceeded to gorge ourselves on a feast of deliciously unhealthy Big Macs and Double cheese burgers, while taking our tastebuds on journey of discovery through the many dipping sauces on offer – ketchup, mayo, chilli, garlic chilli and honey mustard. Rest assured, they all passed our stringent taste testing with flying colours.

The taxi ride to our AirBnB apartment was quite a shock to the system, as we needed to acclimatise once again to Saigon’s crazy roads. Half an hour later and we’d arrived; the place was centrally located, contemporary and clean. Although the poor fitting balcony doors did little to keep the deafening sound of repeated motorbike horns outside from filling the studio apartment, we assumed things would quieten significantly by the time we went to bed.

After a quick sit down and a blast of the air-con, we were ready to face the hustle and bustle outside. We’d barely walked a hundred yards in the humid heat and were already dripping with sweat. Our target was to be the markets, hoping to find Joella some new sunglasses and me a new baseball cap to replace my smelly tweed one. For some strange reason the build up of sweat had left it smelling a lot like old kippers – yum. We found a few contenders but didn’t get the urge to follow through with a purchase just yet. Later on we were then pounced on by a group of students looking for tourists to practice their English with, we happily answered their questions although found some like “What is your one favourite thing about your country” quite challenging!

 

 

Day 1 – A walking tour (and swapping accommodation)

The following morning didn’t start well; we both woke up having had little to no sleep. Being so centrally located came with a price – the never ending racket of drivers CONSTANTLY using their horns. We both decided we couldn’t stay there another night, so arranged to move on to new accommodation – fortunately the AirBnB host was ok with this. We felt mightily awkward, but didn’t want to waste our time in Saigon being zombies (dangerous when crossing the hectic roads) or short tempered with each other.

With bags the size of coconuts under our eyes, we headed off for our ‘free’ walking tour we’d arranged the previous day. After the first 15 minutes or so, we’d soon realised that Henry our tour guide was a nice enough chap, but was utterly useless as a tour guide. He wasn’t able to add any extra value apart from directions, as we zig zagged through the centre of Saigon in the burning sun, checking out the Central Post Office, Opera House, statue of Ho Chi Minh and Notre Dam Cathedral. We finished our whirlwind tour in the War Remnants Museum, which illustrated in shocking detail the terrible atrocities (in a very one sided manner) of the Vietnam war.

While in dire need of refreshments that evening, we made our way to the infamous Bui Vien St. It was much like Seam Reap’s Pub Street; lined with every sort of drinking establishment you could imagine, as far as the eye could see. After our usual indecisiveness in trying to choose somewhere for a drink, we eventually sat down in a front row seat overlooking the crowds passing by that consisted of fire breathers, stag parties, prostitutes and ladyboys. After some lovely refreshing beers and scrumptious food (namely pumpkin fritters) recommended to us by a couple of friendly New Zealand blokes on a golf trip, we made our way back to the apartment and hit the hay.

 

 

 

Day 2 – Blissful massages and sophisticated dining (in the dark)

The next day was to be one of utter decadence, at least as far as backpacking trips go – for a start we actually felt semi-rested having moved on to a 3 star hotel featuring noise insulation!

Following a lovely breakfast buffet we headed out in search of a famous Vietnamese full body massage, which was to be our first ever massage experience. Things started off as expected; a dimly lit room, hypnotic music, flowery scents and then POW as the masseuse got to work. I managed to resist asking her to stop – just, as she proceeded to literally walk all over my back, snapping my neck in the process. Ultimately it was worth it though, as we felt thoroughly relaxed afterwards, which sadly mostly evaporated within a matter of minutes while dodging the chaotic traffic on the way back to the hotel.

That evening my dad had kindly booked us in to an exclusive restaurant he’d visited the previous month. But before our feast, I thought we’d better indulge ourselves with some fancy cocktails on a rooftop bar first, perched in one of the many towers that dominate Saigon’s city skyline. Regrettably the weather wasn’t kind and we were presented with a thunderstorm… Thankfully the rain did stop for a bit, allowing us to briefly head outside and take in the bright lights below.

Dinner afterwards turned out to be truly out of this world: We were eating at Noir, a global chain of fine dining restaurants with a twist: you eat in complete and utter darkness, served by blind waiting staff. Losing one of my most treasured senses turned out to be even more overwhelming than I’d prepared myself for (despite the warm up game), but it was all worth it, as it did heighten our other senses, most notably taste. The whole experience wasn’t just an edible treat though, oh no, having to guess each of the delicious 11 dishes / tasty 3 wines added a slice of entertainment to the proceedings too – but turned out to be harder than expected after we were shown the menu afterwards. I cannot recommend dining at Noir enough, go book yourself in!

 

 

Day 3 – Sightseeing (and a spot of Shuttlecock)

And so it was finally upon us; the last day of our South East Asia adventure. After a light breakfast (understandably we were still rather full from dinner) we made a beeline for the privately owned fine art galley. Although nothing to write home about, it did give our eyes a few visual treats, making up for being kept in the dark last night! Before stopping for lunch we explored an old 60’s apartment block that had been transformed into a series of boutique clothes shops, cafes and restaurants, a genius idea, but was quite a work out!

Visiting the Independence Palace was to be our final stop in Saigon. It was interesting to learn of it’s history through the years, but was quite an ugly piece of architecture in our opinion – the modernist design was very brutal and we thoroughly disagree this successfully combines oriental and modern architecture. The original palace of a more traditional French style was far nicer in our humble opinion…

While walking back to our hotel I was unexpectedly invited to have a go at Shuttlecock; a popular sport played in Vietnam involving two teams of people kicking / heading a shuttlecock over a net. We’d seen it played previously using a partially filled drinks bottle, but here they were using professional looking plastic shuttlecocks. I ended up buying one it was that much fun!

With a blink of an eye, having returned to the hotel to pick up our bags, we were boarding one of JetStar’s fancy new Dreamliner aircraft destined for Sydney.

We’d be lying if we didn’t say we were ready to return to the Western world. Asia was hard at times; dealing with the crazy humidity, scary animals and often repetitive menus. But oh boy was it worth it to experience the wonderfully kind people, beautiful sights and out of this world foods. We have not a shadow of a doubt that we will most certainly be back sometime soon 🙂

Now, on to our new home: Australia!