The Truman Show – the Canberra episode.

Canberra. Australia’s capital city. It’s not generally a tourist destination, and in fact most people ask “why are you going THERE?” when you say that you’re off to Canberra. Followed by “there’s nothing there!”. Well, that’s not strictly true. Of course there’s stuff there. Just not big ‘look at meeeee’ touristy sights. There’s a couple of things that made me want to visit. First, the fact that everyone said I shouldn’t. I wanted to see for myself. I’m not all about the big sights, and love just experiencing places for what and how they are, not just for what sights they have (like the time I went to Mae Sot in Thailand). Second, to meet up (and stay with) some people (Paul (Daniels) and Debbie (McGee)) I had met in Tasmania.

Canberra IS interesting. But it’s a funny place. Nothing at all like other places I have been. It’s a planned city, made when it couldn’t be decided whether Sydney or Melbourne should be the capital of Australia. So, it’s all very organised and planned and everything seems to have it’s place. It kind of reminded me of the Truman Show. Everything is neat and tidy, all organised. The grass is all cut, there’s no litter, buildings are nice and shiny. All the different business are in different areas; all nicely categorised and grouped together. The cars all move (mostly) with ease on the roads, and people stream out of all the government buildings like suited clones all walking in a nice tidy line. Even the joggers and cyclists felt a bit like they were on a conveyor belt loop around the man-made lake in the centre.

Where I was stayed was actually outside the city. Paul and Debbie live about 30 minutes outside the city right in the middle of the bush, so this was a different experience to the city too. I got my own digs above the garage (thanks guys!), enjoy some fab home cooking (roo sausages anyone?) and got to see kangaroos bouncing around in the wild! It was great to stay with them and see what rural Canberra life was like. So, it wasn’t just a tourist sightseeing trip to the capital. But, as you know, that’s not quite me anyway. I like to get off the beaten track a bit.

I surprised myself here though; I had a couple of days of culture. I’m not a huge museum fan, but I managed to spend a whole day in the War Memorial museum. It was fascinating. And I’m not even being sarcastic. It actually really was. And then I spent a day in some art galleries. Again, really quite interesting. OK, so two days of culture was about enough. I also walked round the lake and went on a bike ride to get a bit of outdoors stuff in. Think I felt the need to balance it all out.

But, to sum it up, I had a great time in Canberra. It was great to see Paul and Debbie again, to spend time with some wonderfully friendly people. Great to get a bit of culture and do something different, and see a place that a lot of visitors to Australia won’t, mainly based on what other people say.

So, I’d say, if you like to see difference places just to experience what they’re like, then Canberra is worth a visit. If you like to visit museums and art galleries, then Canberra is worth a visit. But, don’t just take my word for it. Or listen to others. Why not visit for yourself and make up your own mind?

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Touring Tasmania….on a pushbike.

Well, I said I wanted a challenge. And f*ck me, did I get that. With bells on.

Just a few things for you to consider before I start. 1) Tasmania is Australia’s hilliest state. 2) There was a record-high heatwave the first week I was there. 3) I’ve not biked anywhere near these kind of distances. 4) I’ve never done anything like this before. 5) I’ve never biked fully loaded with panniers full of gear/a tent etc. 6) I’m not that fit at the moment.

So, as you can see, I was totally fully prepared and ready to bike hundreds of kilometres. Not. My plan was to cycle from Launceston to Hobart, along the North East/East Coast of Tasmania. All in all, around 600km, just me, a bike and a tent. Yep, it’d be a breeze. Right?

HA! Nope. Although, I can look back now and think “hey, it wasn’t that bad, it was quite easy actually.” That’s due to the huge Dame Edna-style rose-tinted spectacles I’m wearing. Funny how once you’ve done something your mind can trick you about how it actually was. That’s why I deliberately made sure I thought about how I was feeling as I was going around (although, some days I didn’t have a choice, it’s all I could think about) and made sure I wrote notes every day. To avoid RTS syndrome.

That’s not to say it was bloody awful either; it was one of the best things I’ve ever done and I enjoyed every second of it (even the really, really hard tough bits). If I were to describe it in a few words, it’d be a mixture: Incredible. Amazing. Tough. Fantastic. Hot. Hard work. Gruelling. Relentless. Rewarding. Magic. Fun.

Oh, and if you’re wondering where the idea came from, I’m not entirely sure. I think a mixture of wanting to visit Tasmania, to do something a bit different, feeling quite unfit and wanting a challenge. I’d been inspired about bike rides by a couple of people along the way on my travels so hey presto, the idea came together and voila!

If you’re interested, let’s start with a few biking facts and stats. Oh, just to be clear, these are just my biking days from the day I set out to the day I finished. I had a bit of time in Launceston at the beginning and a while in Hobart at the end with no biking.

  • Day 1: Launceston to Low Head: Total distance biked 66km (41 miles), top speed 55kph (34mph)
  • Day 2: Low Head to Bridport: Total distance biked 65km (40 miles), top speed 49kph (30mph)
  • Day 3: Rest Day (plus a slight hangover)
  • Day 4: Bridport to Derby: Total distance biked 55.5km (34 miles), top speed 57kph (35mph)
  • Day 5: Derby to St Helens (aka Gravel Hell Day): Total distance biked 76km (47 miles), top speed 47kph (29mph)
  • Day 6: St Helens to Lagoons Beach (via Binalong Bay): Total distance biked 70km (43 miles), top speed 53kph (33mph)
  • Day 7: Lagoons Beach to Coles Bay; Total distance biked 69km (43 miles), top speed 44kph (27mph)
  • Day 8: Rest Day
  • Day 9: Coles Day to Swansea: Total distance biked 28.5km (18 miles), top speed 38kph (24mph)
  • Day 10: Swansea to Orford: Total distance biked 62km (38.5 miles), top speed 54kph (33.5mph)
  • Day 11: Orford to Richmond: Total distance biked 56.5km (35 miles), top speed 68kph (42mph)
  • Day 12: Richmond to Hobart: Total distance biked 30km (19 miles), top speed 48kph (30mph)

So, there you have it. In 10 days biking I cycled a total of 578.5 km (359 miles) and reached a top speed of 68kph (42mph). I’m not normally one for shouting about stuff I do but I’m bloody chuffed with that. I’m sure there’s people who have done way more (like Valerie, the girl I met in Hobart who had biked all the way from Adelaide to Darwin alone – 3000 km in two months. Hats off to you girl!) but for me, this is a huge personal achievement.

I set out in a bit of naivety really, not really thinking about whether it would be difficult or not, knowing it would be hilly but not realising what that really meant (like what it would actually feel like) and being a bit blasé (oh it will be easy peasy) about it all. Well I got my reality check! Although, all the way through I did it with a smile on my face and still thoughts of, well, just how bad can it be? And there was never any question about whether I could do it or not. Ever since I decided to do it I knew I could. I guess the questions were how long it would take and how hard it would be. I guess it helps I have endless optimism and a bit of determination. That ‘mind over matter’ grit. Which came into play endless times. Like when my legs were so tired I had to force them to keep going. When my knees felt like they might pop out of their sockets from pain. When the hill seemed never ending and the sun was relentless. When I ended up on that gravel track, miles from anywhere in the baking heat, only able to go about 5kph and knowing there was another 40km to go. When my shoulders and back were so cramped up from having 10kg hung off them. When I knew I still had two big hills to go before I could stop. You get the picture.

So. Where to start? So much to tell. Hmmm. Ok. Let’s start at the beginning.

Well, actually, let’s start with a thank you. A big, huge, mega THANK YOU. To Bob and La, who lent me a bike, all the bike bits and camping stuff, along with a heap load of help and advice. They have been just truly awesome and this bike trip may not have gone ahead without them. Or if it had, I doubt it would have been even half as successful. I owe them so much. So a big thank you guys, from the bottom of my heart.

So my trip didn’t start out particularly smoothly. I got to the airport and realised I’d forgotten the bike helmet I’d borrowed. As it’s law to wear a helmet over here, it meant I would have to buy one when I got to Tasmania. It also meant I couldn’t really put my bike together at the airport and I’d have to figure out a way to get a dismantled bike in a box into the city. Top tip: When you write a list of things to remember to take, it’s helpful to actually read the list before you go. The next important lesson I learnt was that bikes in boxes usually weigh around 25kg. I got told this by the helpful lady who pointed out that I was 5kg over my 20kg allowance. I might have remarked that it might be helpful to put that on their website for people who had never flown with a bike before and had no idea how much it would weigh. Luckily, she was an actual helpful lady and offset the weight of the bike with my carry on and I only had to pay an extra $30 rather than $60. Top tip: Pay the extra $4 or whatever it is when booking baggage allowance on a flight to get a bit more than you think you need.

I also found out that Tasmania is a lot smaller than I maybe first thought. Or, that there’s a lot less people there. Oh, and shops and other places shut early. I got into Launceston just after lunchtime and most of the shops shut at lunchtime. I wandered around the streets (minus my bike box – I’d left it in a Mountain Designs shop) and it was like a ghost town. On a Saturday afternoon. Prime shopping time and nothing was open and there was no one about. I was on the search for a bike helmet and I knew if I didn’t get one now, then I’d be stuck in the middle of the city with a bike in a box and no shops open until Monday. Luckily, I managed to find probably the only bike shop that was open until 3pm and they hit me up with a nice shiny white helmet. I trotted back to Mountain Designs and started to put my bike together in the back op the shop next to the rucksacks. Oh, let’s be clear, I didn’t just start unpacking my box in the middle of the shop, the manager did actually say I could. I think she felt sorry for me. This was the first of many acts of kindness I experienced on my trip.

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In my first few days in Launceston before I started my biking, I’d already managed to compile a little list of do’s and dont’s. I’m not sure whether these will help anyone but me, but, well, you never know.

  • Do walk around a gorge for hours in a heatwave without water. You won’t get mega thirsty and be praying for a water fountain to appear at all.
  • Don’t look in a mirror when applying sun cream. Of course you’ll manage to rub it all in and most definitely won’t have any streaks of white on your face for the entire day.
  • Don’t take flip flops with you. This way you get to walk around on stubby grass in bare feet or have permanent grass-covered socks.
  • Do pitch your tent as far away from the toilet/shower block as possible. Especially up a hill and in full sunlight with no shade.
  • Do leave your tent flap open – you’ll enjoy sleeping with ants.
  • Do decide to walk to the supermarket to get food rather than going to Hungry Jacks. It’s only about 5km away and you won’t want to eat your own hand with hunger by the time you finally get back with some food.
  • Do go to McDonalds to get wifi. You most certainly won’t look like a weirdo lurker outside and it will work perfectly. (I must be the only traveller who has never been able to get MaccyD wifi to work. In any country.)

I had a couple of days to have a wander round the beautiful little quaint city (it is technically a city, but it’s so tiny it really doesn’t feel like one) of Launceston (pronounced Lon-ses-ton), and the wonderful Cataract Gorge. It was beautiful and I wondered what the rest of Tasmania would be like after this. I was getting an idea for the hills here and also starting to wonder what I’d let myself in for. I really enjoyed Launceston but I was itching to get going out on the bike. Once I’d had a broken spoke fixed (reckon it got broken on the plane coming over) and my assembling skills checked out (turns out I didn’t do too bad), I was ready to hit the road. So, off I went. For about 100 metres. Then, in traffic, my chain came off. Good start. I think it was the bike just letting me know not to get too cocky.

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So, first day of biking wasn’t too bad. It was hot, and I started to realise just how far I’d have to bike, and just how long it would take me. I’d never spent 5-6 hours on a bike before, and after I’d been biking for about an hour I really did think I should probably have got to where I was going. I got a little lesson in managing expectations here. I also thought it was hilly. Ha. How wrong I was. That was actually flat compared with what was to come. By the end of my trip I had discovered the real meaning of the Tasmanian hill scale:

  1. Flat – quite few hills
  2. Not too bad – quite a few big hills
  3. Hilly – mountains

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I got my first glimpse of the Tassie scenery that first day, cycling alongside the Tamar river through wine valley country. Very pretty, with cute houses overlooking the river which was as blue as you could probably get. I got to bike over the awesomely-named Batman Bridge, and rolled into a place called Georgetown only to realise that everywhere (apart from the one supermarket) shuts at 5pm. I came to realise that this is normal for most places on the East Coast. At this point I’d done about 60km and my left knee was complaining quite a bit. After another (slightly uphill, quite hot) 5 or 6km I finally arrived at a caravan park in a place called Low Head right at the top of the island. Not a lot here, just lovely views over the river (especially at sunset) and Bass Strait and an awesome couple called Colin and Linda who gave me a chair, a beer and some bacon & cheese cheddar things as soon as I rolled into camp. Very much welcomed. How friendly and generous? I know. And no, they weren’t some kind of weird swingers or running a sex cult. Just, nice, friendly Aussie travellers.

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Already now an expert in tent setting up and taking down, I was ready in a jiffy the next day to trot onto Bridport. Well, trot wasn’t quite the speed I went at. Not surprisingly, my legs were a bit achy. So would yours be if you’d just cycled 65km without any practice or build up. Also, my left knee was pretty much in agony. It was REALLY painful. More than I’d expected. It felt similar to how my knees felt when I first started running, but much worse. Deep down I knew it was just a ‘getting used to the riding and repetitive exercise’ pain, so I soldiered on, but, bloody hell. It hurt. The only way I kept going was to think in a few km blocks. Like, “I’ll see how it feels after 5km”. Luckily for me, after about 10km the pain went away. Just like that. And I had a pretty uneventful day, although a few things stood out for me on this bit of the journey: 1) There were no villages or towns or anything to pass through. Just rolling fields and bush. So no shops or cafes. Luckily I’d already figured out to always carry a bit of food. 2) It was really hot, as Tasmania was still in the throes of the record-high heatwave. It was like riding a bike in a sauna. I guess people pay good money for that kind of workout. 3) There was a lot of road kill. Tasmania is known for it, mainly because there’s loads of animals here, most of which like to go and play on the roads between dusk and dawn, so it kind of figures. What’s not so great is riding past all this roadkill (some quite big (wallabies) and most that aren’t quite, well, whole any more) in temperature that’s in the high 30’s at a slow speed because you’re on a bike. I was reminded of the smell of DEATH. Which funnily enough reminded me of my childhood in the country. 4) Logging trucks are actually quite big compared to a bicycle. And they don’t give you a lot of room on the road. I was living on the edge. Quite literally, on the edge of the road.

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After stopping to buy cherries from a guy on the side of the road (there’s a lot of that here. Proper Tasmanian cherries, and oh my word they are good. So dark and so sweet) I rolled into Bridport, my right knee now hurting just a little bit. But only a little bit, so I figured it was all good. Actually at about this point I thought that if I had to stop cycling now, it would be OK because at least I had tried it, done a couple of days and experienced what it was like. But I thought I’d maybe be OK. I’d decided to have a rest day here in Bridport before setting off again; I had plenty of time and no need to be rushing off and injuring myself in the process. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Bridport is a fairly big (by Tasmania standards) seaside town. A few cafes, supermarket, shops and a beach. That’s pretty much it. I was getting the impression that this was what I should expect for a big town in Tasmania. I’m guessing this is why it’s so laid back. It was a bit like stepping back in time. No wifi, no unnecessary tat shops, no fancy restaurants, no fuss. Just a place with a nice beach full of friendly people enjoying the summer. It was still hot and I must have looked pretty knackered when I rocked up at my pitch, because the couple next door looked at me with pity and then forced me to sit and drink beer with them. Paul and Debbie from Canberra. I remembered their names as I instantly thought of Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee. Not that they looked anything like them. But they will forever be known as Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee to me.  Wonderful people, I spent a fab evening with them at the local pub where we ate good food, drank two rather spiffing bottles of Merlot and chatted about all sorts, including work stuff, as they own a computer consultancy company (who actually provide IT project managers etc), which actually, was much fun to swap stories. And realise that IT project management seems to be the same on the other side of the world.  When the time came to leave I found out they had already settled the bill and wouldn’t let me pay. Again, such amazing hospitality and generosity. Especially when we headed back to carry on drinking. I think we drank their alcohol supply dry, as the next thing I knew I woke up the next morning in my tent, no sleeping bag, still in my clothes (they were clearly not swingers or sex cult people either as I’m sure I probably would have woken up in either a) someone else’s tent or b) naked), surrounded by cracker crumbs (I’d obviously got the munchies). I have a vague recollection of trying to unzip my rucksack but not succeeding, mainly because it was already unzipped. I think it took me a good 10 minutes before I figured this out. Yes, I was that drunk, and I’ve not been that drunk for a loooong time. My rest day in Bridport turned into a hangover day. Have you ever tried to sleep off a hangover in 35+ heat in a tent? It’s not pleasant.

Back on the road again, I biked from Bridport to Derby (pronounced Derr-bee), stopping to have lunch at Scottsdale, where I got some impromptu advice from a Tassie local about getting a bike mirror from the shop round the corner so I could see the trucks behind me. I didn’t get one, but I guess it was nice of him to be concerned. It was pretty hot and pretty hilly again, but I’d started to get into a routine and it certainly didn’t feel as much as a slug as the first couple of days. I’m guessing the day off/hangover had helped in some way. And the stop to eat a trail bar in a graveyard.

Derby was a cute place. Tiny, tiny village. No shop but a couple of pubs, some B&B’s, cafes and a tin mine museum. I camped in Derby Park for freeeee and chatted to John and Nerryl who were on holiday from Adelaide. They fed me cups of tea and actually apologised that they didn’t have enough food to invite me for dinner. Sweet. I was alright with my tin of tuna and bit of bread though. Decided to go for a walk to the other end of the village to see what was about. It took me about 10 minutes. As it was about 6pm, of course everything was shut. Apart from the pubs. Heard voices coming from the one nearest to the camp site so I decided to go for a beer (yes, the hangover of the previous day was miraculously forgotten). Ever see it on TV where someone walks into a bar and the music stops, everyone stops talking and turns around to stare? Well, that happened. Apart from there wasn’t any music playing. But, if it had been, I swear it would have stopped. There was a handful of locals who clearly weren’t used to outsiders strolling in, cheerily shouting hello in an English accent. Mouths had actually dropped open and I got a bit of a steely stare from the landlady (who I later found out was called Betty) behind the bar, who, when I asked what beers they did, sarcastically pointed to the [one] draft pump. Boags of course. I ended up having a great night; getting to know the locals, finding out all about Derby and the pub’s history, and being bought drinks by Terry, the local ex-rocker who, after every drink, was ‘just leaving’ (and who was still there when I left….). The couple of young lads there invited their mates and everyone found it hilarious that I was biking around, let alone about to bike the two massive hills the next day, and wanted to know all about my travels. It was the kind of pub where you left your money on the bar and your glass just got filled up and money taken, no need to order or pay for a drink. I’m surprised Terry had any money left on the bar, the speed in which Betty would whip his empty glass away and refill. The kind of pub where you had to go behind the bar to get to the ladies toilet. The kind of pub that if Betty was out the back you just filled your empty glass up from the pump and put the money behind the bar. Proper local, honest and full of characters. In the space of an evening I went from being stared at to hearing cries of “No, don’t go” when I got up to leave. All in a day’s travel. This night is one of my fondest memories actually.

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More stranger kindness (honestly, I could write a whole blog post on it’s own about this. In fact I will. Soon.) followed the next morning as I had packed up camp, ready to tackle those two massive hills. A chap walks over with a box of Coco Pops in his hand and asks me if I’d like to join them for breakfast. Who could refuse an offer like that? Soon I was chomping on Coco Pops (not had those for YEARS) with Derek, Margot and Ruth. They even gave me a little chocolate bar to take with me for energy on the way (and unbeknown to me at the time, I needed it!). I also had a separate guy some over with some water as he’d seen me filling up my water bottle from the untreated water tap. Little did he know I have a Travel Tap which means I can fill up my bottle pretty much anywhere and it will filter all the nasties out. Even the Brayford Allister, although I never did try before I left the UK.

Derek also offered me a lift as they were going the same way. I knew I had two massive hills to get over. It was tempting. But, I decided that might be cheating. So, I told them that when they passed me later, to ask again. But, fate decided to intervene. Or maybe not fate but roadworks and bad road signage. This was probably the worst day of biking for me. It was the hottest and sunniest day yet (maximums of 35/36; pretty unheard of for Tas). I ended up on the wrong road (I’m still not quite sure how, as I didn’t actually leave the road. But still. One of life’s mysteries.) and only realised when I was about 10km downhill. Now, here’s the choice: do you a) go back 10km uphill to get back to where you’d come from and know that you still have two massive hills to climb, or do you b) see an alternative gravel road route that will take you to the same end place without really going out of the way? Looking back, I’d choose a). But of course I didn’t, I chose b). It seemed the best idea at the time, but then I’d never biked on Tassie’s gravel roads before. Now, it would have been OK if it was just a little gravel road, say, 5km? IT WAS 40. 40. 40km. That’s nearly 25 miles. 25 miles of rough, massive, bumpy, slow gravel roads. In 35 degree heat and no shade. With no passing cars and just state forest all around. Let’s just say I felt very isolated right then. And because it was such slow going (averaging 5kph) I was there for a LONG time. I actually didn’t know whether I’d get to the end of the road. Not in a dramatic “I’m going to die” but more a “shit, will I get a puncture or will the bike break it’s being shaken around that much” or “I’m going to have to camp out here in the forest” or “I wonder whether I’ll get heatstroke” or “I wonder if I should have taken that little road back there as I don’t know whether I’m going in the right direction” or “Have I got enough food”. That kind of thing. I can say the day that will forever be known now as ‘Gravel Hell Day’ certainly reminded me of Mind Over Matter. When you’re out in somewhere like that, only yourself for miles around, having to push on even though you’re running out of energy because it’s so hot and the road is so bumpy and hilly (oh yes, I avoided the two big hills but had to content with lots of [slightly] smaller ones), losing more fluids than you’re drinking, knowing that you’ve still got at least 6 hours more biking to go and no apparent end in sight, you have to dig deep and just Get On With it. So I did. There might have been a time when I told the sun to Fuck Off (sorry for the language Nan, but I was pretty hot and a bit irritable at that point!) but I pretty much managed to keep smiling. When I got to the end of the gravel and saw the tarmac, I very nearly got off my bike and kissed the ground. Nearly. What I actually did was laugh and pedal manically, rejoycing at how easy it seemed. Until I got to a hill and realised I had naff all energy. Cue the little chocolate bar I’d been given that morning! Gave me the sugar boost I needed to do the last 20km to St Helens before I collapsed in a heap at a hostel in a proper bed rather than a tent (only because it was cheaper to stay there than it was to pitch a tent – Tasmanian summer madness).

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St Helens is a bit of a funny place. Quite big, but not a lot there. A few shops and cafes (thanks Cafe Banjos for the free wifi) but not a lot else. Oh, I did get a guy with a 70’s porn moustache and a cowboy hat walk past me at night and drawl “Howdy” with a slightly creepy smile. Bit weird. Felt like I had biked through a portal and ended up in Southern USA. Not that I’ve been to the deep south but, it’s kind of what I imagine it’s like.

St Helens is more a launching pad for the beautiful Bay of Fires, which is actually lots of different bays which are stunningly pretty, especially in the sunshine. I had a ride up to Binalong Bay the next day before carrying on. Unfortunately for me, the weather decided that after nearly a week of record high sunshine that the day I bike to Binalong Bay was the day it would cloud over and be a bit drizzly. Thanks for that. Still, it was beautiful, even in the rain. And it gave me a good excuse to go to the cafe there and eat a chip mountain (literally, I am NOT KIDDING) and half a cheesecake (again, NOT KIDDING).

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And I can’t complain about the drizzle. After a week of nearly melting while riding, it made a nice change to have some cooler weather. Pretty sweet actually. Not so good to set up camp but as I was an expert tent setter-upper at this point I had it done in approximately 10.8 seconds*. *could be a slight under-estimation

More stranger kindness at the Lagoons Beach campsite. Trish, Richard, Barry and Molly (the self-named Grey Nomads) not only gave me beer when I arrived, they brought me a plateful of steaming hot chicken, potatoes and veg. Room service to my tent. Followed by chat, tea and homemade chocolates in one of their nice warm campervans (very welcome on a chilly damp night). How amazing is that eh? Australian’s are so damn friendly and generous, and these guys were just lovely and great to chat with. They also offered me a lift but again I said no. This bit is the flat bit so it definitely would have been cheating!

It was about now that I started bumping into old friends. Colin and Linda from Lowhead drove past so I had a quick chat with them. In a bakery in Bicheno I met up with Marc, a fellow cycle tourist from Canada who I met back in St Helens. Then Colin and Linda joined us in the bakery. Small island. This day I learnt about the phrase ‘on it’s last legs’. I was. Literally. You ever heard about the ‘Toxic Ten’? I first heard this when I started running. It was used to describe the first (and sometimes last) 10 minutes of a run where it would be really Hard Work. Well, I had the Toxic Ten and more. It was a nice day of riding but for the last few km my legs hurt. Really hurt, and it was such hard work to get to the end. I got to the campsite at Freycinet National Park and pretty much collapsed. My legs honestly felt like they couldn’t go much more. My last legs. That night I thought about walking up to Coles Bay to go and get some food but I just couldn’t face it. It was only just up the hill, but my legs really didn’t have any strength left in them. I’d already planned the next day as a rest day, which it would have been no matter what, because the next morning I just couldn’t face getting on my bike. I wasn’t going anywhere. The start of the walk to the famous Wineglass Bay lookout was about 5km from the campsite and I couldn’t even face getting on my bike for that, so I hitched a lift with a passing car.  Good job, because the walk up to the lookout and then down to the bay (which, by the way, is beauuutiful) and back was bloody tough. Some rest day eh. Obviously I rewarded myself with a snooze on the beach and two massive bars of Milkybar.

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Stranger kindness again? Yes, in buckets and spades here. I met a couple of families from Tassie on their annual holiday to Freycinet and they took me under their wing and invited me to dinner on both nights. I met Sue, Terry, Lesley, Sandy and Erica and, like everyone else, were just so friendly. They really welcomed me in and made me feel part of their family for a couple of days. I later stayed with Sandy, Lesley and Erica again in Hobart but that’s for another blog post.

Coles Bay to Swansea should have been a long ride back, along 30km of the same road because there’s only one way in and out of Freycinet. BUT. I was sneaky. I had achy legs, it was a mega windy day and I just couldn’t really face the thought of riding 30km along the same road back again. So, I diverted about 10km out of Coles Bay to a place called Swanick, which is just across the river from a place called Bagot Point, which, once you’re there, is about a 15 km ride to Swansea (rather than having to go all the way round and down again). Luckily for me two guardian angels appeared and after a quick chat, offered to give me and the bike a lift across the river in their boat. I will forever be grateful for that. My legs were so grateful, only 30km instead of a 70km ride. BONUS. Plus, the river and the ride along Dolphin Sands was so pretty. AND FLAT. With the most beautiful sky.

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Here’s a few random things I learnt along the way. 1) Everyone waves. I’m not sure whether it was because I was on a bike, but car drivers, lorry driver, pedestrians, farmers and everyone in between waved and smiled at me as I went past. Some also beep. It took me a while to realise they were just beeping and waving to be friendly, rather than beeping because I might have a wheel hanging off or something. 2) The spork that comes with the John West tuna lunch pack will hold you in good stead for a camping trip. You can (and will) use it for EVERYTHING. Of course, it might be easier to remember to take cutlery, especially when your friend offers you some from their camping gear. But, if you happen to forget, this makes a good tool and you’ll be very inventive with it. 3) I found biking alone for hours a day to be a bit like meditating. Lots of time to think, with random (and often strange) thoughts popping into my head. It was great to have that time and space though. And apparently I am not odd to make up games to play or start talking to the animals, other cycle tourists do it too. 4) It was inevitable I would fall over. But, it only happened twice. Once, as I stopped the bike and realised there was no ground to the left where I was leaning, so, plop, over I went. The other was when I was trying to put leggings on, over shoes, while standing up. Yep, I fell face first onto my tent, arse into the air. Top tip: Don’t be lazy and take your shoes off.

There’s loads of wildlife in Tasmania; I saw and heard plenty of it when I was there. Echidnas (very cute small spiky anteater thingys), wallabies (like kangaroos but different), possums (one tried to get into my tent one night), kookaburras (sound like monkeys), crows (sound like they are laughing), loads of different birds, including some birds of prey, and many many more that I either can’t remember or don’t know what they were. One of the great things about biking is how close you can get, and how you see, hear (and smell) all these things. Like the laughing crows. Probably wouldn’t have heard them in a car. They made me smile and laugh every time I heard them. Mainly because it just sounded like they were laughing at me cycling along. Either that or I had got sunstroke and had gone a bit delirious.

Swansea was a cute little seaside town, with a beautiful walk around the headland looking out over Freycinet, and the bike ride to Orford was really nice. Passed Spiky Bridge (an old bridge made by convicts) and some odd things like post boxes made out of toilet seats, and fences made out of trainers. Orford was a bit of a nondescript place, and I got there quite late so didn’t do much. I guess the only thing of note was that I stayed in a free camping place that had no toilets, and the nearest public toilets were a 15 minute walk away. Lets just say I had to strategically plan my evening and didn’t drink much. I’m pretty sure you’re finding this level of detail fascinating. Sorry, I felt the need to share. There might be people who are thinking of biking round Tasmania who may need this vital, important information.

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Onward to Richmond was only a tiny ride of only 30km. It felt like it was over before it began, it was that quick! Although, it did have the fabulously named Bust-Me-Gall and Break-Me-Neck hills which were pretty hard going upwards, but bloody good fast fun going downwards! Got to the bottom with no broken galls or necks. Another bonus. Richmond actually reminded me of a little English village, with lots of old stone Georgian-style buildings, rolling hills, meandering river, Australia’s oldest bridge and a couple of pretty little churches. And a bakery that did an amazing vegetable quiche (yes I like quiche now Mum, who’d have thought it? I also appear to like mushrooms and nuts.). But the most random thing about Richmond was Harmony. Harmony was, quite clearly, a man dressed as a woman, who was driving around Tasmania. Harmony told me that she (he?) had healing hands and proceeded to have a good look at my legs, have a bit of a prod/stroke around and tell me that I had a bit of a dodgy left knee at the back. It wasn’t far off where I had a poorly knee at the start of the biking, so maybe there was something in it. Either that or she (he) just wanted a feel of my leg. Either way, I seem to attract them. Remember my spiritual healing encounter in India?

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From Richmond I had my last day’s biking to Hobart. A great last day’s biking, with a couple of big hills which by now had become, dare I say it, easy. OK, maybe easy is a bit flippant, but I’d definitely say manageable. Bearable. I think my legs had got used to it. I think I had got a little bit fitter. A bit stronger. I’d found a rhythm and got used to getting somewhere when I got there, taking however long it would take. I no longer felt like crying when I saw a hill coming up.

Hobart felt like an assault on the senses when I got there. Loud, noisy and busy! It’s actually a very small city (population of just under 215,000) but compared to the places I’d been to it felt like a metropolis. It didn’t help that I ended up on the main dual carriageway into the city. There’s only three bits of dual carriageway on the whole island, and this was the busiest. For my friends back in Lincoln, it was like the Lincoln bypass. Yes, that’s a major road in Tassie!

I ended up spending about a week and a half in Hobart and fell completely and madly in love with the place. I could have stayed much longer. It reminded me of a mix between Lincoln (for the small, friendly feel where everyone knew everyone) and Cape Town (for the sheer beauty of the place, and the fact it was looked upon by a mountain and had the most beautiful harbour). I’m going to write about my time in Hobart in a separate post. There’s too much to say, and this post is too long already, and I’m sure you’ve either a) stopped reading or b) fallen asleep by now.

So, I guess I should wrap it up now. But I actually can’t think how to. I think I said it all in the beginning. So, I’ll leave you with this.

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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 – 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.

Good morning Vietnam!

It had to be that as a title didn’t it? Of course it did. Even if you’ve not seen the film (I haven’t) you’ve heard that phrase. And my first introduction to Vietnam getting off the bus in Dien Bien Phu and being hounded by taxi drivers. Now, this is normal for countries in Asia, so I’m used to it, but after two weeks in laid back Laos I’d forgotten how in your face it can be, and starts before you’ve even stepped off the steps or got your bag. Where you go? Taxi? I have taxi. You want taxi? Constantly. You get the idea. We knew we were going to be getting an overnight sleeper bus to Hanoi in a few hours so there was no need to panic or need to take any of these good men up on their offers. We just had to fight our way through the melee.

Sleeper bus tickets bartered down and paid for, we got on the bus to find it was an actual sleeper coach. All the night buses I’ve been on in lots of different countries have always either been just normal buses or buses with slightly more reclinable (is that a word? Not sure it is) seats with a blanket. This one had proper jazzy little beds, proper pillows and blankets. The ticket also got us food, a strange little stop at about 9pm in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere with platefuls of grub, our first intro to the world of Vietnamese cuisine. The bus also had disco lights and the way of being woken up at 5am, 10 minutes before getting to Hanoi, was to start the disco lights flashing and play burst-your-eardrums-loud techno music. Definitely the most interesting wake up call I’ve had for a while.

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Arriving in Hanoi at 5am in the morning led to pretty much the same barrage from taxi drivers, in fact it was probably about x100. But, we were in no rush to get anywhere. We had an idea of where we needed to head to but, it was 5am, still really early. In the end, we found we could get a local bus to nearby where we wanted to go, for about 1/10th of the price of a taxi, so we hopped on the number 34 and watched early morning Hanoi go by. HA! Take that, pushy taxi drivers! Tourists-1, taxi drivers-0.

Hanoi is lovely. We stayed here for nearly 5 days and very much enjoyed the vibe of the city. It was noisy and busy, but with an unmistakeable energy. Filled to the brim with scooters and noisy horns, windy maze-like roads that even after 4 days we were still getting lost in. There’s a French quarter that’s distinctly, well, French, and an old quarter that’s pretty, well, old. We spent a couple of days walking* around the city and just soaking up the atmosphere. Enjoying the sunshine and the fact it wasn’t too humid. Actually just lovely temperatures to just stroll around. We went to find the bits of the B-52 bomber that fell in a lake and hasn’t been moved. It’s in a very unassuming place; a small lake in the middle of a residential area. No signs, no memorial, just a bit of a plane. But, it’s actually quite moving. Quite impactive, mainly because of the simplicity.

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We went to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. Nick couldn’t get in because he was wearing hot pants. Ok, so not actually hot pants, but shorts above his knees. So, I went in. I have to admit, I don’t really know much about Ho Chi Minh yet, but it was rather strange, trooping in with lots of Vietnamese locals, and seeing him there, lying, all lit up. I’ve not really seen a dead body before, so it was a bit of a first for me. Apparently, it had been closed for 2 months for new embalming, and had only opened that day. So I felt quite privileged.

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We also went to the ‘Hanoi Hilton’. This is the sarcastic nickname that was given to Hoa Lo prison by American prisoners of war when they were held there in the late 1960’s-early 1970’s. It’s a museum now, and a lot of it has been built over, but there’s a lot of information on the French use in the early 1900’s. The bit that interested us about the American prisoners was just within two rooms; but it was very heavily propagandised, and had to be taken with a bit of a pinch of salt. I found it surprising, after all this time that it is still rife. But, it’s only nearly 40 years, it’s not really that long at all I guess. The war is something I want to learn more about, and throughout my travels in Vietnam so far I’m seeing and learning different things. But, I’m also concious of the propaganda. So, I’ve added it to my list of things to learn more about with my own research. There’s a few documentaries I’ve been recommended which have gone onto my list of things to watch, and some books I want to read. After all my travels I will have enough things to keep me busy for months, and that’s before I get a job, haha. That’s one thing I’m loving about travelling. All the learning, education and the opening of my eyes to things that happened in our world that I had no idea about. It’s so easy to live in a bubble and be so completely blind and ignorant to the rest of the world. So, so easy.

One of the best things about Hanoi though is Bia Hoi. A wonderful invention. Cheap draft beer in little roadside bars, all over Hanoi. Couple this with boiled monkey nuts (which are a bit like little miniature minty potatoes) and a bit of sunshine and you have one of my favourite memories of Vietnam so far. One Tuesday afternoon, after a very busy morning walking lots of miles, Nick and I decided to treat ourselves to some beers and nuts. We found a spot in the sunshine, looking out onto a junction and settled down for the afternoon. I swear we didn’t move for about 5 hours, and spent about £3.00 each. For many beers, nuts and a lifetime of memories.

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And, a never-to-forget moment from Hanoi was the pig on a scooter incident. Now, I’ve seen some scooter sights on this trip. Anything you can think of on a scooter, you’ll see it, and more. But the best one so far, yet to be surpassed, was a whole dead pig, trotters nearly trailing on the ground. There was the guy sat on top of the many bags of rice/sand/whatever it was, or the fridge, or the wardrobe, or the chickens in baskets, or the wheelbarrows. But none of them can beat the pig.

It was a bit of a wrench to leave Hanoi, as we’d got quite comfortable there. Our hotel was lovely, a bit of a treat, even though we weren’t paying over the odds for it (less than £3 each a night), but it had a hot shower, air conditioning, awesome beds and breakfast. We felt very posh. We had a lovely shop just round the corner where we could get everything we needed, a Bia Hoi corner just up the road and a great noodle place down the road. What else did we need? But, the time came to move on. This time to Ninh Binh, a small town about 2.5 hours south of Hanoi. We decided to get super cheap (hard seats) on the train. Wooden seats. The most authentic, I like to think. It was only a couple of hours, and what a lovely couple of hours. The carriage was filled with the most interesting characters, and the scenery flashing past us gave us a flavour of what real Vietnam was like out there.

Ninh Binh itself doesn’t really have a lot going on; it’s not a major tourist destination, just a working town. Which maybe is why we liked it. Not many people spoke English, and all the kids loved shouting hello and waving when we walked past. Not many westerners, a bit off the beaten track. I like this kind of travelling. Wandering round, seeing what’s going on. Watching people just living their lives – seeing how they interact, how they raise their families. We can learn a lot from other people. We hired bikes one day though and cycled out to a place called Tam Coc which is a bit of a tourist destination. It’s like a smaller, land locked version of Halong Bay (which we never went to). We hired a boat and got rowed out (by people rowing with their feet- that was a bit interesting to watch – it actually seemed quite efficient) between limestone karsts and into caves. A lovely, peaceful, serene experience, without hoards of tourists. Perfect. Follow it up with more biking in amazing scenery=a Bloody Good Day.

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One thing I am noticing about Vietnam though, is how many people try to rip you off because you’re a tourist. For anything you buy in the shops, from water, to snacks, to food and so on. You really have to know what things costs (or should cost) and have your wits about you. Sometimes it feels like a right battle, just to go and buy some water. It gets a pain having to argue Every.Single.Time. A bit wearing.

However on the flip side, the people are one of the best things about Vietnam. Most of them are just wonderful. Happy, chatty, friendly, cheeky and smiley. One restaurant in Ninh Binh that we’d been into a few times gave us a free packet of biscuits as a ‘souvenir’ to take with us because they knew we were leaving that night. No real reason to, and totally unexpected (and rather nice biscuits too).

Vietnam, I am loving it here so far. You are lovely. And, if you could just have a 7/11 every now and then you’d be perfect.

*getting lost