Back to the fold.

I’m back in Melbourne now after my Tasmania adventure (and a little blog hiatus). And what an adventure. I had an incredible time; Tasmania is one of the most wonderful places I have been to so far. I fell in love with it and I’m pretty sure I’ll be back there one day.

I’ll be working on a blog post over the next few days, and I’m pretty sure it might just be an interesting one. Stay peeled! In the meantime, here’s a few photos to give you a bit of a taster…

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A holiday from the holiday.

That’s what I had recently. 10 days on a beach, eating lots, drinking lots, partying, sleeping, sunbathing, paddling in the sea, a little bit of running and little else. Just resting and having a bit of a holiday.

You probably think, but you’re ON holiday. Why do you need a holiday? That’s just being greedy.

But you know, travelling is tiring. Travelling can be non-stop. Travelling can be hard work. Travelling can be stressful. Travelling is not really the same as a holiday.

Imagine the last weekend away you might have had, where maybe you went to a new city, or a new place. You’ll have to get there, right, so by car, or train or even plane. Then, you need to find your hotel, that you’ve probably already booked, so it’s just a case of finding it. Then, you spend a few days finding places to eat, visiting sights and attractions, lots of walking, taking pictures, new sights and experiences. Then you travel back, and get home and probably feel a little bit worn out, and maybe in need of a little rest.

OK. Now imagine doing that pretty much every day for a few months. Imagine not having any accommodation or travel booked, so all that has to be sorted out on the move or when you arrive in a new city. Getting to a new place and finding your way around. Learning new bits of a different language every few weeks. Organising visas and getting used to new currencies. Packing, unpacking and repacking. Figuring out who’s genuine and who’s trying to rip you off. Finding a laundry to wash clothes. Lugging a heavy backpack about. Getting on and off buses, trains or tuk tuks. Finding cheap places to eat, where you can try the local food without it costing a fortune.

I tell you, it’s a bit tiring. And I’m not knocking it one bit; I do enjoy every minute of it. And please don’t think I’m being ungrateful, I realise how amazing it is for me to be able to do what I’m doing. But boy, I didn’t realise how much I needed a break until I laid on that beach. A break from doing. No going anywhere, no sorting anything out, no photos or sights to see.

Sometimes, travellers need a holiday from the holiday. A chance to recharge, to stay in one place for a while, establish a little bit of a routine and just enjoy the art of not doing.

And oh, it was heavenly. It worked.

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Vietnam vagabond adventures.

The second bit of my Vietnam adventure took in the cities of Hue (pronounced h-way, not huey, like the guy from Yorkshire on our sleeper bus insisted it was), Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City (and a lot of loooooong bus journeys in between each one). We’d already booked our sleeper bus tickets in Ninh Binh before we saw on the news that the super typhoon was due to hit Vietnam right on the central coast – right on Hue, the next day – exactly the time we were due to get there. Hmm, not exactly ideal. Luckily for us, it decided to change it’s course and ended up missing the coast completely, although the first day we got there it was very rainy and windy all day (some remnants from the typhoon) so we could do nothing more but have a chill out day. Part of a rainy day in Hue for us resulted in an Indian FEAST because the local Indian restaurant was only a few doors down. Exactly what we did on the first day in Luang Prabang in Laos so we decided to make a tradition. I felt more stuffed than a shop full of teddy bears afterwards but, damn, it was worth it. After weeks of noodles and the like it was bloody lovely to have a change, and reminded me when I was in India back in July.

Hue is an old city with a lot of history, and an imperial city that’s not dissimilar to the Forbidden City in Beijing (although nowhere near as big). Over the couple of [dry] days we had there, we just spent a fair bit of time wandering around the city and hired bikes to get out into some small villages out in the countryside. It was one of my favourite places, mainly because I just had so much fun. My Hue Highlights:

  • Hiring bikes and getting out into the villages. We didn’t have a set route, we just set off down one of the roads out of the city with no map, just a vague sense of direction. We ended up biking through some really small little villages, where I guessed they don’t see many Westerners. Or indeed any at all, judging by the amount of children shouting hello, waving and running after us or taking photos of us and the adults who would nudge the people they were stood next to, and point and stare, mouths almost wide open. Which soon changed into big massive grins when we shouted “hello” to them in Vietnamese. Add to that pretty incredible scenery, the best hire bikes we’ve had so far, and you’ve got one of my most special memories of Vietnam. The real Vietnam.

  • The baguette lady just down the street from our hotel. She did the BEST egg baguettes for breakfast which were cheap as chips, and she was lovely and happy and smiley too. I don’t know what she did to the eggs to make them taste so good but I think it was all in the salt and pepper. We went there every day, and I might have even had two some days, they were that good.

  • The little cafe just down the street from our hotel. We managed to strike a deal with them to get cheap Bia Saigon. They even moved one of their tables and chairs for us so we could sit on the pavement and watch the world go by. We might have just gone there both afternoons for lazy afternoon drinking in the sun.

  • The hotel. We stayed in a really nice place. We managed to bargain the price down making it super cheap (around £2.30 each a night) but it felt like we had splashed out and treated ourselves. It was nice and clean, had air conditioning, the best shower yet, and they even came in every day to make the beds and give us fresh towels! The luxury!

  • The architecture and history. The city, especially the old citadel, is very pretty, in a bit of an old run down kind of way. Lots of old buildings and stuff to look at and photograph. Lots of flowers and green stuff too.

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After Hue, Hoi An was a completely different kettle of fish. Old and historic, but in a completely different way. Very French-colonial and quaint, with lots of old wooden and coloured buildings along the river covered in lanterns swaying in the breeze. It’s an UNESCO world heritage site, just like Luang Prabang in Laos, and it reminded me of LP too. Even down to how touristy it was, Yep, the few old streets near to the river were just full to the brim of tourists strolling round, and all the shops were either art galleries, tailors, handicrafts or bars and restaurants. Vendors from pretty much every shop would shout out as we walked past. When we sat down to have a beer or some food, people would try to sell you stuff while you were sat there, or even eating. I found it a pain in the arse, and I’m even more patient nowadays. Luckily we had learnt the Vietnamese for ‘No thank you’ and ‘I’m not interested’ so once you trotted that out they soon disappeared, but imagine saying it 50 times a day over and over again (and I’m not even exaggerating). Arrghhhh. That aside, it’s a very pretty place, but I couldn’t help but have the feeling that it wasn’t the real Hoi An. Those pretty 3 streets down near the river just all seemed to be geared towards the visitors. The real Hoi An was away from the river, which we managed to explore a little bit before the floods. We found lovely baguette sellers (the Vietnamese like their sandwiches), a smashing little cafe with the friendliest people and the cheapest beers (only about 15p each and buy 2 get 1 free) and the best food stalls for dinner. We never got to explore the beaches because of the floods which is a shame, but all in all I enjoyed my time here, and in fact those few days ended up being a proper little adventure, that I couldn’t have predicted, and that’s what makes Hoi An memorable for me.

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Heard of Saigon? Or Ho Chi Minh City? It’s the same place, a big sprawling city in South Vietnam. It was renamed HCMC in 1976 but it’s still commonly referred to as Saigon (which I think I like better). It’s a 24 hour bus journey from Hoi An. Yep, that’s right, 24 hours. Honestly, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Really. It was actually two 12 hour journeys, split with an hours wait in the middle to change buses. After all my travelling this year, long journeys are now the norm. It’s short journeys that are out of the ordinary. My next flight, from Cambodia to Singapore, is only 2 hours. How exciting, I can’t wait! It’s going to seem like a bit of a treat, haha. I then have a 6 hour wait in Singapore before a 7 hour flight, but hey, that’s not the point.

HCMC is big, loud, brash, noisy, hot, dirty, a bit seedy and IN YOUR FACE. Just how I like a city to be. Well, maybe not the seedy part. The traffic is a nightmare, there’s thousands of scooters and trying to cross the road is like running the gauntlet. Moto drivers and bar owners constantly shout at you to get your business, and the usual baguette and noodle stands line every corner. I have to admit, I was getting a bit ‘city-ed’ out by the time we arrived here. Still, in true travelling style there was a big city out there to be explored, so we spent a few days walking lots, eating, finding cheap beers (naturally) and visiting a museum and war tunnel or two.

In no particular order, my favourite things about Saigon:

  • The scooters. Thousands of them. I love just stepping out into the road and crossing, having them all weave their way around you. I love watching as people transport everything under the sun on them, as well as trying to eat, drink, talk or text all at the same time. I love the scooter helmets and all the different designs.
  • The food. Oh the food. We found some places that were so good we didn’t really go anywhere else. I had one of the best chicken noodle soups I’ve had, only 50p for a huge bowlful, in a little local cafe that would show films opposite a glass factory and a place that sold ice. We spent a few afternoons just sitting, eating and watching Vietnamese life go on. We saw a woman delivering a massive pane of glass on the back of a scooter (at first glance you couldn’t see the glass and we just thought she was throwing her hands in the air like she just didn’t care). We saw the young guy delivering ice on the back of his scooter, dripping water and soaking from where he’d been sat up against the bags. We watched a bit of Terminator 3 and drank iced tea after our soup. We found a little family run egg baguette place where we’d go every morning; they’d bring stools out for us to sit on, give us water to drink, and sometimes a bit of fruit. While eating some of the tastiest egg sandwiches I’ve had we’d try and have conversations with them but none of us spoke much in the other’s language.
  • The war remnants museum. It was heavily propaganda-ised, however there was an excellent display of press photographs from the war and some related articles, which helped balance it all out a bit. After this last trip here I finally felt like I’d learnt what I wanted to learn about the war.
  • Cheap beer. We found a great little cafe on one of the main streets where they served cheap beer and we could sit and people watch from the tables outside on the street. We went here a few times; the first night resulted in many beers here, then to a lively bar where we drank loads of rum buckets, met some strange people and had a 5am bedtime. Another time we had to move from the front tables on the street because the police came round and were enforcing the pavement space rules (which seemed slightly strange, as the bar was opposite the police station and they saw the tables there every day, and then saw us get up and move the tables away while they were watching. A bit of a bizarre practice.).
  • The people. The local people in Vietnam are cheeky, spirited and generous to a tee. I very much enjoyed the interactions I had with them, especially some of the street hawkers that would come and pester us when we were sat outside drinking beer.
  • City wandering. We had a good old wander and saw parks, cathedral, the post office (we scoffed at people taking photographs inside until we went in ourselves and did the same thing – beautiful building!), statues, skyscrapers, Christmas decorations, posh hotels, the river and other general city stuff. Saigon has a lot of old and new architecture, and quite often both are side by side, and make quite a stunning view.
  • The Cu Chi tunnels. You can go and visit the tunnels made by the Vietnamese during the war, where many people lived underground for years. They were incredible. They’ve been widened by 35% and lights added but blimey, how people lived and used them is beyond me. They are really hot and humid, claustrophobic and even just going about 100m through them was enough for most of us. Seeing the booby traps they used to maim and kill American soldiers was pretty sobering too. A lot of people died in those tunnels. Hugely saddening.
  • Meeting people. We met some interesting people in Saigon; people who were travelling or just on holiday, and people who were living and working there. We also bumped into a few people we’d met in Laos previously. It’s a small travelling world, especially the North>South Vietnam trail so it’s not really surprising, and a wonderful bonus. I love meeting all different kinds of people when travelling; the conversations to be had can be anything from light hearted and fun, to serious, challenging and in depth. I get to find out about how people live in other countries, how they travel, what their beliefs are, what their viewpoints are and it just keeps on opening my eyes even wider to understand all the things that make the world go round.

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I loved Vietnam. I really, really did. I’ve wanted to visit for years, and I’m well chuffed that I now have. I learnt loads, had lots of fun, met some great people, saw some beautiful scenery and had a brill adventure. It’s been my most favourite SE Asian country so far but I can’t quite put my finger on why. Just a feeling. I think I’ll be back someday. There’s so much more of the country to explore, and maybe next time I’ll make it even more of an adventure. And get me one of those scooters.

Bangkok nights.

I’m going to start this post with a caveat that despite spending 5 nights in Bangkok so far I’ve not really done much, so I’m not sure I’ve got much to write about. My friend Nick is joining me in Thailand in about a week and I’ll be heading back to Bangkok to meet him. So I put off some of the tourist things until he arrives. That and I was also feeling a bit ‘templed’ out after India and China. Oh, and I was also fed up with the heat.

So, I had quite a relaxed few days. I had to sort out plans for getting to Koh Mak where I’d spend a week or so before coming back. Sorting out=researching, figuring out how to get there then going and booking bus tickets etc.

I didn’t want to be in the middle of backpacker central, so the place I stayed in was in a mainly Thai residential area south of the river; nice and quiet and away from the madness and crowds. There was a little night market selling mainly meat, fruit and vegetables (most of which I couldn’t recognise and had no idea what they were) that popped up near there so I spent a bit of time walking round it. It was a hive of activity, with people chattering and cooking, the smells and colours all so strong and fresh. It was a full ‘in your face’ experience, making all my senses feel alive and a great way to introduce me to some Thai culture. It also made me pretty hungry so after a bit more wandering I found a little place to eat in. Nothing fancy; just a few tables and a small kitchen at the back. A proper little Thai eating place, where it kind of feels like you’re sat in someone’s living room. There’s no menu, just a load of Thai writing on the wall. The woman couldn’t speak English; I couldn’t speak Thai. We looked at each other with bemused looks on our faces until a chap sat behind me came to the rescue. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing I ended up with some kind of chicken fried rice dish. The tastiest chicken fried rice dish I’d had ever. Add in some fierce chilli flakes from the table and it was incredible. Oh, and the best bit? It cost me less than a £1. “Welcome to Thai food, Paps.” I thought. One of the best things for me about travelling is the food. Trying new food, finding different places to eat. And I’m pretty sure Thailand is not going to disappoint. Especially as they also have fruit carts! I am so excited about this. Carts full of melon, pineapple and other [as yet unidentified and untried] fresh fruit. For pennies. I am SO going to eat healthy while I am here. It’s like the melon on a stick snack carts in China all over again. Such a shame England doesn’t have anything like this. All we have is carb-heavy, calorie laden shitty snacks like pastries, crisps and sweets. No wonder people struggle to eat a healthy diet when out and about, the options are so limited. Maybe that could be my new job when I get back? Fruit-Cart Operative. Wonder how many people would go for it?

That night I sat on the hostel roof with some guys also staying there drinking Chang beer from the local 7/11 (taking dibs on who would do the next beer run), making paper aeroplanes to throw off the roof, watching a thunderstorm in the distance and just chatting about travel, life and the universe. It was such a relaxed evening, a perfect way to spend a few hours, although I’d realised my tolerance to alcohol has definitely diminished and I felt more than a little drunk by the end of it (which was around 2am in the 7/11 getting beer munchie cheese and ham toasties and Hersheys chocolate). I wasn’t drunk enough to forget though that it was a Thursday night, which only means one thing: Film Club night back in the UK, and as 2am here is 8pm back there, my Film Club buddies got a drunken hangout call. I can’t really remember much about the details of the conversation but I remember laughing a lot. And them laughing a lot. And getting chocolate all over myself. Love them.

Walking round this area at night (not while drunk, obviously), down all the little streets and alleyways is like having a glimpse into real life for the people who live here because all the houses have main rooms that all fully open out into the street. It reminded me of those kid’s dolls houses where you could open the front and see into every room. Each building houses something different; people making shoes, people’s living rooms, arcade machines, fabric shops, sewing shops. You name it, there was probably someone doing it. It felt a bit voyeuristic, walking round and gazing into their lives. But a smile and a hello is returned with a wide grin and a warm greeting back, which made me feel better.

One day I went to Lumphini Park and wandered around for a bit, looking for the monitor lizards and checking it out as a possible place to run (it passed). It’s a nice place to pass the time and people watch for a bit. That evening I went out for dinner with a woman who lives in Bangkok, who I know through an internet forum I go on. Another meeting in real life of a random stranger that I only know through the internet, but this time no running, just eating and drinking. I had a great time, and she treated me to dinner and wine at a trendy bar which was super generous of her. I love that the world is such a smaller place nowadays, that I can meet new friends in all kinds of ways and that once again I’m reminded that the world is full of kind, lovely, generous people. It was nice to see a ‘friendly’ face while I’m travelling, and find out more about real life in the city, rather than just hitting the tourist spots. That’s what travelling is about for me.

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And what visit to a big city is not complete without going to Chinatown (via boat)? Now I’ve actually been to China, it’s a bit of a different experience for me. I like it. The one here had lots of small streets with markets, food stalls and everything in between. I’m pretty sure I’ll probably go back again with Nick so didn’t really do much else apart from walk through. Oh, and stop for something to eat at a street stall. Everywhere you go there are little carts that serve up mainly a kind of noodle soup with some kind of meat or meatballs for tiny prices. They quite often have a few tables to sit at nearby so I got my bowl of noodle soup and sat down, adding in chilli flakes to make it a bit interesting. Probably added in a few too many but that’s by the by. They had chopsticks. Oh how I had missed chopsticks over the last few days; forks and spoons seem to be the utensils of choice here. I’d spent a month in China mastering my own special way of using a pair, and really enjoyed it. Now, granted, my method is probably not the same as the ‘proper’ way of using them but it does the job. The chap at the food stall obviously didn’t think so as he came over with a fork as I was halfway through. Hmm. I didn’t think I was that bad. I waved him off with a smile, he returned it with a confused look and a grin.

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I’ll probably go back to Chinatown as I’m pretty sure Nick will want to go there. Nick loves trying new food even more than I do, so I can’t wait for more street food adventures. Mmmm. All that fresh food, packed full of flavour and more heat than you can handle (if you want). Oh, I’m sure we’ll do a bit of sightseeing but it’s the food. It’s all about the food.