San Fun-cisco.

Thanks Ross Allen, TV creative extraordinaire, for inspiring¬†the blog post title ūüėČ

SF or San Francisco. People round here don’t tend to call it San Fran. Which is what most¬†tourists seem to call it. I spent a week¬†here. It was only ever just a stop off on the way back (because my flight tickets is a round the world I had to land somewhere in North/South America, and I’d always wanted to go to SF), I never really had any intention of travelling elsewhere. And, to be honest, by the time I got there I was just about ready to come home, so any longer than a week would have felt a bit of a drag I reckon.

No hostels this time, I stayed with a guy I met in New Zealand. Another brief meeting, I met this guy for all of 5 minutes at the hostel I stayed at in Queenstown. I was quite hungover and pretty tired; everyone else was drinking his Jack Daniels but I felt shit and went to bed early. But, in true traveller style, we swapped contact details and a month or so later he gave me his sofa for a week while I stayed here. That cool traveller hospitality. I also got to meet his very cute dog Tango.

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San Francisco is awesome. It was a bit of a culture shock from New Zealand. There’s a lot of homeless¬†people here. And a lot of ‘interesting’ people. The area I stayed¬†near is quite a hippy hangout so there’s a whiff of weed pretty much everywhere you go, and a lot of people talking to themselves (or people that don’t seem to be there) and just chilling/flaking out. On my first day I had someone tell me that they loved me and that I had pretty feet. Now, as soon as he said the latter I knew he was not quite with it. Pretty feet? I don’t think so. NZ is so laid back, so friendly and there’s not a lot of people that SF was a bit of a slap in the face. That’s not to say people aren’t friendly here; they most definitely are, but there’s also a lot of people that aren’t so much. Like the woman on a bus who was talking about if someone makes eye contact with her she finds it really rude and was quite specific about what she’d do to someone if they dared to look at her. I¬†didn’t look at her. Or the man who was calling the bus driver a ‘motherf*cking b*tch’.¬†Not¬†sure¬†what the driver had done to piss him off. Or the woman who¬†was shouting obscenities at someone she was pretending to be on the phone to “f*ck you asshole, you’re not my boyfriend” before jumping off the bus and running down the street with the guy who was shouting at the bus driver.¬†I liked going on the buses. They were interesting. Because it’s real life at it’s best. This is what it’s like people. This is real life. These people are real. They exist, they live, they travel. It’s not like my life, but that’s the thing about travel; you get your eyes opened to the world. I¬†like being immersed and surrounded by all kinds of different people; to¬†other people and their lives.

When I landed a heatwave started. Typical, of course.¬†Usual temperature should have been around 18 ish degrees. For the first few days I was there it was around 30. It was hot, but not unbearable though. What did surprise me was everyone around commenting on how hot and how awful it was. I didn’t think it was too bad, but I¬†remembered that this is an oddity for SF. Their temperatures rarely get that high, especially¬†for days at a time. It also made me realise that I had kind of¬†become accustomed to higher temperatures. This hopefully will bode me well should we have a hot summer in the UK this year.

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It also meant that there was none of the famous San Francisco fog for most of the week. So wherever I went I got great views. The place I stayed in had a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge, which I could see most mornings. The city is really pretty, I loved all the coloured houses on the hills and the steps up to some of the most amazing doorways I’ve seen. The place I was staying in felt very American. It had a laundry in the basement, a trash chute and the kitchen just looked like ones I’d seen on the TV in films, with a window out that faced the neighbour’s window which was in exactly the same place. For some reason I loved how American it was, I loved the little corner shop a few doors down, and the lovely little cafes and grocery store at the end of the road. The brunch of omelette and potatoes I had at one place was to die for. It also had outlets (plug sockets) that¬†constantly looked frightened. They made me smile every time I¬†charged my phone.

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I had quite a busy week. A mixture of sightseeing, normal stuff, a cheeky run, a fair bit of socialising and some lazing about. Here’s a brief run down.

  • Haight Street. A road¬†full of vintage shops, cafes, smoke shops, tattoo and piercing places and a few things in between, with all kinds of different characters milling about. A great place to just wander down and absorb the atmosphere.

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  • I went downtown (they don’t call it a CDB here) to have a wander round a couple of times. I sat in Union Square and ate my lunch, went to the Cheesecake Factory in Macy’s and walked all the way up Market.
  • I walked all the way along the Embarcadero from¬†Market to Fisherman’s wharf, stopping at Pier 39 to marvel at the tourist tat and sea lions, and gaze out over Alcatraz (didn’t manage to get round to have a tour as it was all booked up too far in advance).

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  • I went on a tour on the back of a motorbike with a guy I’d never met before. Thank you couchsurfing for the intro, and thank you¬†Brando for an awesome couple of hours. Great way to see the city and so¬†cool to¬†go down the famously crooked Lombard Street on the back of a Suzuki gszr 600.

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  • The Golden Gate Park was just a few blocks from where I was staying, so I hung out there a bit, and also managed to fit a little 4 miler in one morning too. Huge park. Well, this is America. Everything is BIG over here.
  • I treated myself to an end-of-travelling tattoo, a proper haircut and a new nose stud. I’d had my eye on a tattoo design for a while, although when I first went to the studio I left with a booking for a completely different design and size. However, when I went back we realised it might not work exactly how I wanted it so I went back to plan A. And the haircut was just fab. I went from straggly-haired-hadn’t-been-cut-in-a-year-and-a-half-traveller to nice-and-tidy-with-a-few-layers. It felt nice to do something normal and something that was a standard thing in my old life was turned into a bit of a treat and a luxury. Travelling makes you appreciate the little things.

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  • I drank¬†mint juleps on a roof somewhere downtown with Rodin and some of his workmates, in honour of the Kentucky Derby, a bit like an American Grand National. A mint julep is a bit like a mojito but made with bourbon. Basically bourbon, mint, sugar and lime. Surprisingly tasty, especially given that I’m not a huge fan of bourbon after drinking far too much of it when I was younger. I also got to check out a SF office where their conference room was called The Batcave, their kitchen was stocked with food, including nutella and cookie dough spread and they had a fatboy hammock in their meeting area. The whole place¬†was pretty groovy, although it was still an office, and still reminded me that I have to get a job at some point.
  • I had meatloaf for the very first time. I figured that as I was in America, I’d try something that I see mentioned on the TV all the time. It was in a trendy restaurant in the Castro area, so I’m guessing it’s maybe not like the one that everyone’s Mom cooks that isn’t that great. This was was bloody amazing!

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  • I rode a cable car. San Francisco is famous for it’s little cable cars that trundle¬†up and down some of the hills because they are so steep. They’re pretty cute and although they’re not that fast and there are cheaper public transport options, they’re¬†really quite handy to get from Fisherman’s Wharf to Market and are a must do for tourists.
  • I went to the How Weird Street Faire on the afternoon before I flew home. It’s a festival where anything goes. And I mean, anything goes. I saw all kinds of weird and wonderful things, costumes¬†and people, danced in the street to some wicked DJ’s, soaked up the great friendly vibe and just marvelled at some of the amazing¬†costumes. I loved how¬†expressive and accepting everyone was, and amused myself by trying to picture something like this being held in Lincoln. Maybe, hey? Who’d be up for it?

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  • And of course, no one can go to San Francisco without going to the Golden Gate bridge. The iconic piece of orange engineering separating San Francisco and Marin County. The Bay Bridge on the other side of the city is actually bigger and longer, but it’s not orange. It doesn’t have the same impact. I walked across the GG bridge¬†and back again (about 3.5 miles in total) and it was beautiful. The views up at the towers as you pass them are just¬†fab, and the views back to the city and across to Marin County are stunning. I was lucky it was such a clear and sunny day (although epically windy) and we got great shots in every direction.

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All in all, a fun filled week, filled with new stuff, new friends, new experiences and the excitement that I’d be going home at the end of it. ¬†It was hard not to try to wish it away the nearer my flight got, but SF is such a great city it was easy to keep myself busy and out of mischief. I could have stayed longer, but a week was about enough. I did everything I wanted to (and a bit more). Well, apart from Alcatraz, but I couldn’t help that. And besides, it’s always good to keep something back for next time.

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Captivating Cambodia.

Cambodia. A country full of character, history, scenery, lively people and good food. We had about 2 and a half weeks in this amazing country. The first and main thing for anyone going to Cambodia is to go and see Angkor Wat. Obviously a must. But. There’s much more to it than that. It could be said that Cambodia got a bit of a bum deal from us in terms of travelling time. We spent 10 days at the beach in Sihanoukville not doing anything. Not seeing anything, not exploring, not taking any pictures. Because, after all the other SE Asia travelling, we were worn out and ready for a holiday. So, yep, we ate into our Cambodia exploring time to be beach bums. But, it was worth it. I don’t feel like we missed anything, or sacrificed anything. In fact, those 10 days gave us some great times, great fun, new friends and even though Sihanoukville doesn’t feel like the real Cambodia,¬†we met some of the loveliest Cambodian people going. And still had plenty of time to go visit those Angkor temples and to find out more about the Khmer history, include the Khmer Rouge regime.

From Sihanoukville, feeling more relaxed than someone who’s spent a whole year in a spa, we made our way to Siem Reap on a hotel bus. What’s a hotel bus I hear you ask? Well, it’s kind of like a posh sleeper bus. Little compartments for two, with completely flat beds and pillows/blankets, separated to the rest of the bus by curtains with headphones and music (Dr Dre beats no less, although of course they are the fake ones you can get out here). Normally you have to pay extra for this compared to the normal sleeper bus but we ended up being upgraded onto this one for free.¬†Bonus. A pretty decent night’s sleep followed, and we wound up in SR in the morning surprisingly fresh and sprightly. When we originally booked our ticket the woman said she would organise a tuk tuk to take us from the station to the middle of town for free as part of our ticket. We were a bit sceptical, as you learn to take what people say about transport with a pinch of salt as it’s often not quite the case. So, we gave the name James Bond as a bit of a joke. But, sure enough, there was our tuk tuk driver holding up the sign JAMES BOND. I so wish I’d taken a picture but I was too busy fending off other tuk tuk drivers. Honestly, they’re like wasps round a jam jar as soon.as.you.get.off.the.bus. In your face. Literally. I’ve had to push some of them away before. They ignore what you say most of the time too.

The usual routine followed. I’m sure you know it by now. Find a guesthouse. Haggle for a good price. Dump bags. Get food if not eaten. Go for a wander. Find cheap beer. Drink beer. And that’s pretty much what we did the first day. We had our first beer at 11.40am. I don’t remember going to bed but Nick says I collapsed on my bed at about 9pm. We found a great bar on Pub Street doing cheap 50c beer where we sat for around 7 hours. We made some new friends from the USA, Doncaster and Ireland, and all sat there getting drunk. It was a most fabulous day, even if I don’t remember all of it. I do remember my foot bleeding a lot (I’d ripped part of my big toenail off somehow) and falling asleep in the hotel restaurant while waiting for a burger though. Just a usual drunken night out. Only this one cost us $7 each. That’s less than a fiver. For a 7 hour, 14 beer, drinking session. The next day was fairly relaxed, and I didn’t have a hangover.¬†Extremely¬†surprised at this. Either my tolerance level is back up or I was still drunk for most of the day. I suspect the former, the latter would just be scary. Walked lots. Suspect this helped.

The day after was Angkor Temple day. Whoop! You must have heard of Angkor Wat? Or the Temples of Angkor? If not, learn more here. It’s somewhere I’ve always fancied visiting if I ever got the chance, so I kind of woke up a bit excited. There’s bloody loads of temples in the whole complex, but there was three I really wanted to see: Angkor Wat (the main and most famous temple complex), Angkor Thom (the huge city, including Bayon which is the temple with the faces) and Ta Phrom (the one that’s overgrown with trees, as seen in the Tomb Raider films). So, after negotiating hard for a tuk tuk, we ended up with a sparky young lad as our driver for the day. For $6 he took us round. Little star!

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The temples were beautiful. All different in their own way. Seeing Angkor Wat for the first time, that iconic view that I’d seen so often in other pictures, was mesmerising. Made even the more better by bumping into some old friends we first met in Laos. What a spot for a final goodbye, as they’re off to Indonesia, Nick’s off back to Thailand and I’m off to Australia, so no more chances to bump into them. I’m hoping to meet up with them in Oz or NZ though, if the universe plays ball and dates and places collide. Angkor Wat is huge. Really, really massive. Loads of rooms, courtyards, corridors, nooks and crannies. It was also crammed with people, no surprise there. Lots of tour groups. Especially from Japan and China. Who always seemed to be going the opposite direction to me. Especially where there were steps or small doorways. One chap from a tour group even decided to use my leg as support when he fell up some steps. And I didn’t even get a thank you.

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In a way it reminded me of the Taj Mahal, although it’s not really similar in the slightest. I can’t quite explain why, it just does. Maybe the size and scale and, well, I don’t know. It’s just a feeling. It was also lovely to bump into some friends we made on our very first night in Laos, all those weeks ago. Ross and Emma, a permanently cheery, lovely couple have been a bit of a permanent fixture in Laos and Vietnam. We kept bumping into each other all the way round, in different places, which was lovely. But we all realised that this would be the last time, as we were all heading off in different directions after Siem Reap. Although, I hopefully might be able to meet up with them in New Zealand, if dates and schedules line up. It was a sad day, a realisation that the next adventure was soon upon us, which, of course while exciting, also means the current one has to come to an end.

Angkor Thom and Bayon were next. I liked these. They weren’t as restored as Angkor Wat, and were a lot less crowded. I didn’t get pushed or grabbed, or fallen on. Oh, although I did get rudely told to move out of the way while I was taking a photo, so someone else could take on. I may¬†have taken longer to finish my photo after that. Well. How rude.

I liked the faces of Bayon, they all seemed to have a bit of a self-satisfied dreamy smile. It made me wonder what they were thinking of. Yes, I know they’re not real but you know what I mean. Or, they could be magical mystical things that come alive at night when no-ones watching. You never know. ¬†Travelling means keeping an open mind, so, who knows?

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But it was Ta Phrom that I think I was most looking forward to. This is the one that’s all overgrown with trees. Where nature has been left to do it’s thing, and you can see how destructive and powerful it can be. Huge trees have grown into, over and through the bricks. The one that was used in the Tomb Raider films (apparently, I’ve never seen them). It was beautiful. Eerily beautiful. Amazing to see all the roots and how they spread. The trees were huge. Really, really huge. It does just remind me how we can be at the mercy of nature. Ok, so there’s no immediate danger to us from these trees (as far as I know they’re not killer trees), but it just shows how things you think are strong can be reduced to a crumbling heap by nature. It’s powerful. We should never forget that, and give it the respect it deserves.

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There’s so many more temples to visit, but these are the ones I wanted to see. I think any more and I would have been templed out. (This can be a common affliction while in Asia). It’s funny, the complex reminded me of Clumber Park (England), India and Mexico¬†in different ways at different times. The more places I go to, the more triggers of memories I seem to get. The joy of travel, eh?

Siem Reap was a great place to hang out. It had a great little vibe. It’s only really a tourist destination because of the temples, but there’s actually lots of other stuff to do too. We hired bikes one day and went out to a couple of the rural villages on the edge of the Tonle Sap lake. It was awesome. The villages were very rural, and it was clear the people who lived there didn’t have a lot of money. But, the people we saw, especially the children, we just lovely. Shouting and waving to us as we biked past.

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We also went and gave blood at Angkor Children’s Hospital. I wanted to do something to help, and I haven’t been able to give blood in the UK last year and of course when I’ve been away, so this seemed perfect. Everyone who can give blood, should. It saves lives, and is vital. I started as soon as I was old enough at 17 and have given as often as I can since then. It’s such as easy thing to do but so important. Seeing and hearing the children at the hospital when we went was heartbreaking, and so I’m so pleased I got this chance to help, just a little bit.

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After Siem Reap, I took my last bus journey to Phnom Penh. A long, bumpy ride, I was so over Asian bus rides by the time we got there. I’m glad it was my last. They’ve been fun, and an adventure, but, well, think yourself lucky with the potholes in England. There’s craters over here, and they don’t get filled in. I’m surprised my spine isn’t shattered and that my brain is still in my head.

Phnom Penh is the capital city. We’d already been there once but only for an hour on a bus changeover. We arrived here in the evening, and headed to the South of the city to try and find a place to stay. It was harder here; places were either full or¬†really¬†expensive (well, expensive in the context of Cambodia/SE Asia). As we were wandering around after having no luck for a while, a guy on a scooter stopped us on a street corner, introduced himself as Greg and offered us his spare room. Of course we said yes, hopped onto a tuk tuk and followed him to his house. Why wouldn’t you?

We stayed with him and his two house mates (Cass and Kip) for our last 3 days of the SE Asia adventure, and it was great. No checking in and checking out, they gave us free reign of the apartment and even fed us pizza. Man, it was awesome pizza.

That’s one the beautiful things about travelling. You meet people and you just know. There’s mutual trust. People offer things, you know it’s genuine. No half-arsed offers. I had a 10 minute conversation with someone in Thailand and now have somewhere to stay in Tasmania next month. And I will stay there. It wasn’t just a polite offer. ¬†You get to meet all kinds of interesting people. ¬†A wonderful thing. The world is small and people are lovely.

The real reason for going to Phnom Penh though (apart from me having a flight to Singapore) was to learn more about the Khmer Rouge regime. I’d heard of Pol Pot, but didn’t really know much about him. Now I do. ¬†We visited the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum which was originally a school, and then the S21 prison, where people were taken to be imprisoned, tortured and sometimes killed. It was a haunting place, where blood stains on the floors and photos of the prisoners made it even more impactive. We also visited the Choeung Ek killing fields¬†just outside Phnom Penh, where huge numbers of people were killed. Both were moving experiences, although the overwhelming feeling I had was anger. Such hypocrisy, power, greed and insanity. Such a complex and twisted history. And these weren’t the only prisons and killing fields; there were hundreds all across Cambodia. In total, more than 2 million Cambodian people died. For wearing glasses, for being a teacher, for being educated, for being able to speak a foreign language. All under the direction of a professor and educated man himself who studied abroad. Go figure.

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I know a lot more now, and the more I learn about atrocities like these, the more I struggle to get my head around it. But the more I hope that things like this are in the past. That they will never happen again. That countries around the world will not let it happen. We must educate people so they are aware, raising future generations to stop this.

Cambodia has been a mix of experiences, and I’ve enjoyed every second of it. It’s captured my heart and there’s just something about the country that is special. I can’t quite narrow it down to one thing; it’s everything. Everything that I experienced there.

So thank you Cambodia. You were wonderful.

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 Рright on Hue, the next day Рexactly 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‚Äôt 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‚Äôt 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 ‚Äúhello‚ÄĚ to them in Vietnamese. Add to that pretty incredible scenery, the best hire bikes we‚Äôve had so far, and you‚Äôve 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‚Äôt 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.

On the buses.

This is a story of a 14 hour bus adventure over two days through central Thailand.

While in Kanchanaburi we thought it would be a bit of fun to take local transport overland to Mae Sot, rather than head back to Bangkok and get the touristy main road ‘Big Bus’. Mae Sot is on the border with Burma (Myanmar) and a bit off the beaten track so taking local buses meant that we’d be having to change quite a few times. We didn’t quite know how we’d get on or how long it would take but, that’s all part of the fun, innit?

We left Kanchanaburi at about 9am in the morning and arrived in Mae Sot at around 8:30am the following morning. Admittedly this was a teeny bit longer than we were expecting.

The first bus was a local bus to Suphanburi. The local buses are well cool. Full of character, rattles, colour, people, fans and animals (no chickens yet though – just a cat). For a couple of hours we rode along the Thai countryside with the wind in our hair, the sun on our skin and smiles on our faces. People get on and off, the conductor up and down with his little ticket/money box helping people out and chatting. Sometimes the bus stops for a while in certain places so people can get on and off to get snacks, drinks or go to the toilet. The helpful conductor was helping people buy snacks through the windows so they wouldn’t have to get out. They also seem to have to stop somewhere along the way to ‘clock in’. On this journey it was a machine attached to a wall of a small shack in the middle of the countryside. I have no idea why they do this though.

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Note the high tech air conditioning on these buses; open windows and doors and fans on the ceiling.

At Suphanburi bus terminal we got off our bus and pretty much straight onto another of the same type, this time heading for a place called Nakon Sawan. This journey was about 4 hours, so we’re getting into late afternoon now. We know we’ve got another two buses after this one so at this point we’re thinking it’s probably going to be a late one. But, it doesn’t matter when you have plenty of time and no alarm to get up for. This journey was probably my favourite. The scenery was just delightful, passing through central Thailand there were mountains in the background, small villages and towns, people on bicycles, animals, children playing, street stalls selling everything you can imagine. Everything was so green; all the plants and trees so colourful and tropical, and bright flowers and colours dotted amongst them all like iced gems.

Arriving at Nakon Sawan we had a bit more choice of bus now. It was 5pm and after quite a bit of conversation with many different people telling us lots of different things, some food and a sit down away from the touts, we discovered we could either go with a company on one of the ‘Big Buses’ (air conditioned coach) or the government bus (similar kind of thing – it seemed there wasn’t a local bus to do the same journey, perhaps because it’s a bit of a longer route). After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing and a skilled bit of haggling from me, we got the ticket price down for one of the Big Buses to get into Tak at about 10pm. This journey was a bit uneventful, it was dark so there wasn’t much to see, apart from the odd town we passed through all lit up, or the odd remote places all lit up with fairy lights. We stopped after about an hour at a kind of Thailand-style service station where we got a fab hot meal (included free with the bus ticket). These service stations are a bit bizarre – they have a strange feel about them but are pretty much the same concept as back at home – somewhere to go to the toilet, buy some snacks or hot food. However, they’re not at supidly inflated prices here, you can’t buy tat and the food was some of the best I’ve had. No microwave-reheated plastic food at these places. And to get a free meal in with the already stupidly cheap bus ticket is a Billy Bargain.

We arrived at Tak at just gone 10pm. One more journey left – Tak to Mae Sot. We were a bit dismayed to find out that the next bus to Mae Sot was at 3am that night (well, the next morning). Hmm. Not quite ideal. We didn’t really relish the thought of getting to Mae Sot at about 5 in the morning and trying to find somewhere to stay. ¬†We knew there were government minibuses that ran between 6am and 7pm from Tak, so we decided to find a bench and settle down for the night. After all, 6am wasn’t that far away. You might wonder why we didn’t try to find somewhere to stay in Tak? Well, we didn’t know the place, there was nothing in my guidebook and no taxis or tuk tuks about at the time of night. It was just easier to be hobos for the night. It’s the first time I’ve spent a night like that, so that’s another thing to tick off the travelling list. Using my rucksack top pocket as a pillow (I am sure its designed that way) I managed to get a few hours kip on the hardest wooden bench, much to my surprise, in between the barking stray dogs, the toilet attendant’s untuned guitar playing (yep, he worked all night, no free pee’s for me) and the arrival of buses throughout the night.

Nick didn’t get so much sleep, but had just managed to drift off at about 5:30am when a woman came and woke him up because she wanted to sit on the end of his bench. There was a perfectly good seat nearby, but no, she wanted to sit on¬†that bench. She was the attendant for the minibuses for Mae Sot so after giving her a few glares we bought a couple of tickets and waited on a cramped minibus until it was full. You see, over here, buses don’t always go on time, they go when they are full. So, after about a 45 minute wait, the minibus was crammed full of people and luggage and we set off for a most uncomfortable 90 minute journey to Mae Sot. I struggled to keep my eyes open but was awake to see yet more stunning scenery, and also be aware of a girl next to me hide beneath my legs and under my rucksack and plead with me not to say anything when we stopped at a control point. I’m not quite sure what these points are but it seems to be the police checking ID cards, so I’m guessing it is perhaps for illegal immigrants given that we were so close to the Thailand-Burmese border. Clearly this girl didn’t have any ID, I’m not sure what was going on but the chap didn’t spot her and we moved on again.

We arrived at about 8:30am in Mae Sot tired, stiff and uncomfortable, but having had an awesome little adventure on the buses. It’s what travel is all about. After all, it’s about the journey, not the destination.