This is today’s picture because I just loved this frame from the top of Signal Hill. Not sure why, I just thought it was beautiful, simple as that. No story, no words to say.
This is today’s picture because I just loved this frame from the top of Signal Hill. Not sure why, I just thought it was beautiful, simple as that. No story, no words to say.
Queenstown and Wanaka. Two similar but wildly different places. Like they’d say in SE Asia, same same but different.
Legendary Queenstown. Home of everything adrenaline. Home to everything big. Big burgers, big mountains, big shots and big hangovers. In your face, busy and bustling.
Wanaka. Laid back, chilled and understated. A place to relax and enjoy and eat fresh cookies at the cinema.
In Queenstown I met up with Marsha again, who I’d first met in Christchurch through a mutual friend. What followed was a fuzzy week of friendship forming, non-stop alcohol, shots, hangovers, lots of laughter, hill climbing, grass sitting, food eating, film watching, sandwich cooking, men watching, life-sorting-out stuff. We met the delightful V from California too, who made us crack up laughing almost every minute with her crazy stories and theories.
We made the rather fantastic bar Cowboys our local. It’s like the Wild West. The bar stools are saddles, there’s other table stools that have sides (perfect for me), the pumps are guns, there’s a good supply of cowboy hats to wear, a full size grizzly bear to meet you at the door and even a mechanical bull. Yep, a mechanical bull. I didn’t ride it because of my rib, but I spent many a time watching all the other drunkards have a go (when I say have a go, I mean spend ages trying to get ON the thing, only to be promptly bucked off in half a second. Especially if the guys controlling it were feeling mischievous – that happened a lot to cocky blokes who thought they’d be the one to give a good show. Fail.). It also played the same music all the time, although I only clocked onto this after a good few visits, when I realised there was only so many times I could watch Jessica Simpson strut around singing about boots made for walking and wondering what the relevance of her washing a car in a bikini was to the song.
We drank a lot of shots and met a lot of people. Nearly every night in our hostel someone was drinking, pre-drinking or going out. Most of the nights just started innocently with a drink or two. None of our nights out were planned. The best way. An average bedtime was around 3am, after a legendary Fergburger, which, after a night out, is the BEST THING EVER. I’m sure it’s good sober too, but I never really experienced that. My hangover food of choice was Noodle Canteen. They did wicked chicken fried rice in a little cardboard noodle takeaway box, great when eaten in the sun on the grass near the lake, chatting about life, the world and the size of men’s appendages.
I rediscovered jager bombs and tequila slammers, mainly thanks to Damien who would always buy a round of shots quite early on. And well, from then on, you’re committed.*
It was in Queenstown (well firstly in Wanaka but again in QT) where I also met Johnny, an Irish guy I went on to travel with for a week. We all went out for a ‘few drinks’. Ended in a Big Night Out, lots of shots and not a lot of sleep. We all slept in hammocks in the garden in the sun the next day. He did the Nevis bungy jump. Poor bloke.
But Queenstown wasn’t all about the drinking or nightlife (although, that’s a huge part of it for all travellers, and it sucks you in). I couldn’t do any of the adrenaline stuff (and you can do pretty much anything here. Bungy jumping, jet boats, paragliding, skydives, etc, etc) but I could appreciate the natural beauty of the place. It’s often described as one of the prettiest places to visit, and they’d be right. It’s in a great setting, on the edge of Lake Wakatipu with The Remarkables and other mountain ranges surrounding it and the Queenstown Gardens jut out in the middle, full of trees. In autumn, they are all a glorious mix of red, yellows and greens and well, my eyes had a treat every day I was here. As anywhere in New Zealand, there’s a few walks dotted about, and the views from the top of Queenstown Hill and Bob’s Peak are pretty special, and worth the walk/climb (also helps sweat out the alcohol and burger from the previous night).
Queenstown was also the place where I used a hairdryer for the first time in months. This might not sound a lot but, oh my, this was a Big Deal. Such a treat! Smooth straight hair for once. It’s the little things in life you know.
Marsha and I also hopped across to Wanaka for a few days (pretty nice drive in/over the Crown Ranges) to have a bit of a chill out from the madness. Wanaka is like Queenstown’s more laid back cousin (and apparently is what QT was like 20 or so years ago). Just as pretty, just as many hills and mountains to climb but much less busy, less frenetic and much less drinking.
We both loved Wanaka. It was really nice and chilled and we spent a great few days walking, trundling around, eating, drinking $12 cider (Marsha), shopping (Marsha), being propositioned in the supermarket (Marsha) watching very random open mic/karaoke nights (Swedish/english rap anyone?) and visiting what is possibly the best cinema in the world (but possibly not the best film in the world – Pompeii). Cinema Paradiso is a small independent cinema, that has all kinds of seats. Couches, cinema seats, cars (yes, you can sit in a car), bus seats etc. They also sell homemade ice cream and bake cookies in the first half of the film, so at the intermission you can buy warm cookies (whose smell wafts into the cinema near to half time. Mmm freshly baked cookie smell.) for that cookie-induced sugar coma for the second half of the film. Oh, and they’re also licensed so you can buy wine and beer to take in with you, although at nearly $10 a glass it;s not cheap. Lincolnshire people, it’s like the Kinema in the Woods on steroids.
If you’re visiting Wanaka and only do one walk, do Roy’s Peak. It’s 1578m, so just over 200m higher than Ben Nevis (1344m), the highest mountain in the British Isles. It’s a hard climb, very steep and tough, but, well, well worth it for the view. It’s just incredible. I did gasp when I saw THIS in front of me:
Definitely a “f**k me” moment. It didn’t look real. The colours, the texture, the view. It was like a painting, stretched out in a technicolour 360 degree view. It’s the middle peak in this picture, by the way:
We also walked to the Rob Roy Glacier (after a near miss with a cow on the way) and Mount Iron, as well as around the lake. Pretty active yet chilled out few days.
Then of course we went back to Queenstown and hit it hard that night.
*Disclaimer/note to the parents, I was quite sensible and never got completely rip roaring drunk or put myself in dodgy situations. My rib is still intact and I didn’t fall over once. I think.
I’m writing this in Christchurch, having finished my little drive around the South Island. I didn’t blog at all along the way, mainly due to either a) no electricity/internet b) being hungover c) didn’t have time d) no motivation. So it’s all in my head now, waiting to be written. I’ll get there. Handily, my trip naturally split itself into different parts:
A total of nearly 4000 km (just over 3000 miles) in 5 weeks.
But before I start on part one, I’ll tell you about how it came about. I met a guy called Mike in Hong Kong last September. We first met when I insulted him by asking where in Australia he came from. Back then I couldn’t tell the difference in accent. Now I can. Luckily, he’s a laid back guy and didn’t get offended, and we hung out for a couple of days before I flew to Thailand and he moved on to China. I happened to mention to him that I was going to New Zealand in 2014 and he offered to lend me his ute to drive around in. At the time I thought what an awesome offer but it was a long time to go until I would be in NZ so lets see how things go. Fast forward and we kept in touch, and lo and behold, Mike was a star and not only lent me his truck but also camping stuff AND arranged for me to stay with his mum while in Christchurch. Amazeballs. Just one more example of how great and kind strangers, especially in the travelling world, can be. Restores your faith in humanity somewhat, especially because there is no agenda, no reason for it other that just be be bloody nice. Sometimes you can never pay these acts of kindness back, all you can do is pass it on. And pass it on I will.
So, after a few days of sorting the car out (getting it re-registered, warrant of fitness etc) and picking stuff up from Mike’s house (and scaring his cousin’s partner half to death by appearing to be, on the face of it, a burglar), I was ready to rock and roll.
I hadn’t driven in over a year. For a fleeting moment I wondered whether I’d remember how to do it, but then reminded myself not to be so stupid, I’ve nearly been driving as long as I’ve not been driving so forgetting how to drive would be similar to forgetting how to speak or dress myself (although you’d maybe question these two things if you’ve seen me at 3am after a night of tequila). I did get confused with the handbrake in the ute though. It’s a pull out lever thing, not a stick. Luckily, I got shown where it was. Pretty sure I’d still be trying to figure it out now if I hadn’t.
So, one Monday morning, 5 weeks ago, I set out from Christchurch with the sun shining, music on the stereo, a map and the open road. Just me, the ute and a tent in the back. There’s something pretty special and liberating about travelling alone, but even more so for me when I was driving myself around. I could stop anywhere I wanted, whenever I wanted. I made my own route with no time scales, no dates to be anywhere, no pressure.
The first bit of the drive was through countryside that looked fairly familiar to Lincolnshire. Yep, if I shut my eyes I could have pretended I was back at home. Obviously didn’t do this, what with driving and all. But it didn’t last long, we don’t have mountains in Lincolnshire, and it soon started to get a bit hilly, and the scenery started to look like what I’d imagined the South Island to look like. I still remember the first photo stop I did. I don’t know exactly where it was, but it was a river that was stunningly blue, flanked by hills and trees. I thought it was beautiful. I soon learnt I hadn’t seen anything yet.
My first proper stop was Lake Tekapo, where I camped for a couple of nights. Lake Tekapo is beautiful. Hang on, before I go on, let me say this: the whole of the South Island is beautiful. It’s more than beautiful. It’s stunning, amazing, incredible, inspirational, breathtaking, varied, different, outstanding, welcoming, magnificent, awe-inspiring, exquisite and fascinating. I, and all of the people I met along the way, regularly ran out of words to describe it. On more than one occasion I was speechless (yep, it does happen occasionally). So, I’m just putting them all out there right now, in an attempt to not repeat myself in the rest of these posts. It’s safe to assume that all the places I’m going to write about are covered in one of the words above.
Lake Tekapo: a turquoise lake surrounded by mountains, with lots of walks. Which is pretty much how I spent a couple of days here. It was the first outing for my new tent, which I put up in the rain. Amazing how quick you learn what goes where for an unfamiliar tent when it’s raining and your bed for the night is in danger of being waterlogged (maybe a slight exaggeration, it was only drizzling).
I climbed to the top of Mount John, where the world famous observatory is (Lake Tekapo is said to be the clearest place in the world to see the stars. I didn’t go up there at night, but on my second night the sky did indeed put on a pretty good show), sitting at the top for over an hour just admiring the views. My first time being almost overwhelmed with what nature had laid out before me (and well worth the bloody hard slog up the hill as my rib was still pretty painful at that point, making breathing a little bit difficult). I saw the Church of the Good Shepherd (maybe the church with the most picturesque view in the world) and walked around the lake in the morning eerie mist, with clouds shrouding the whole mountains and lake, making me feel like the only person around for miles.
On the morning I left, I chatted to an older chap called Anthony, an extremely well spoken older gentleman in the wine trade, who had just been for a chilly dip in the lake. It was a most pleasant conversation, only made slightly odd when he proceeded to change out of his swimming trunks into his shorts and t-shirt under a very small towel, all the while holding a conversation with me. Not forgetting the part where he’d got out of his trunks and said he’d ‘drip dry’ for a bit. Awkward? Not really, I’m starting to see it all while travelling. Literally.
I headed onward to Mount Cook National Park. A pretty spectacular drive along blue Lake Pukaki, snow capped mountains in the distance. This is what I imagined it to be like. This is what took my breath away.
Another couple of days here, just walking this time. There’s not a lot here; a very basic DOC (Dept of Conservation) campsite and that’s about it, but it’s all about the walking. I did the Hooker Valley glacier walk (so very pretty), and the Sealy Tarns walk, 2200 steps up the side of a mountain. Amazingly hard work as I was still suffering breathing issues due to my broken rib but totally worth it for the view and the chat with Tim from Shropshire. Lovely chap who had come to NZ on his own, his first solo trip and was loving it. One of those people that you can just chat with for ages, about all kinds of things, and I had a lovely dinner with him and Oliver from Germany that night. It beat the night before where I ended up packing my tent up at 2am in the rain and howling gale force winds because if I hadn’t, my tent wouldn’t have lasted much longer. I abandoned sleeping outside and slept in the back of the ute, which was swaying about in the wind all night. Not the best night’s sleep I’ve had, but, while travelling, I’ve not had a proper good nights sleep in over a year now. I can’t remember the last time I slept the whole way through since I’ve been away. Well, apart from any night where tequila’s been involved anyway. See, tequila has it’s uses. Good tequila.
Mount Cook to Arrowtown. Probably two of the most different places I’ve been to. Mount Cook: remote national park with huge mountains and snow and stuff. Arrowtown: small historic mining town that’s straight out of a country and western movie. Honestly. It’s like a film set. I actually loved it here, and ended up staying 3 nights. Spent the days walking, eating and just lounging about. Lovely little place to do it, especially as the sun was out (although, bizarrely, I had my coldest nights in the tent here). I also nearly ate myself into a sugar-induced coma due to the creme brulee fudge they sold in the sweet shop. Also, anyone thinking of coming here, get a pie from the bakery. Del-ici-ous. Just maybe don’t follow it with a huge block of fudge. Although really, as I’m on holiday, there’s no calories right? No wonder I have a nice little layer of travelling fat. I did try and make up for it by going on a little jog.
Arrowtown is only just down the road from Queenstown, home to all things adrenaline; all those things I couldn’t do thanks to that drinking session in Sydney. Queenstown deserves it’s own post as my time there was certainly adventurous, although not in the adrenaline sense. That’s part two.
Talking about Great Things, I nearly forgot to blog about the Great Ocean Road. Near Melbourne, it’s a 150 mile stretch of road to the West of Melbourne. It was built by returned soldiers and dedicated to soldiers killed in World War 1, making it the world’s largest war memorial. It’s also incredibly scenic, which is probably the main reason why people go.
There’s loads of different ways you can visit. Hire a car or a campervan, Camp along the way. Stay at hostels, B&B’s or hotels. Drive it all in one day, just stopping off every now and then, or take your time. Or take a tour. Do a google search and there’s millions of tour companies offering trips. I decided to take a two day tour with a company that my friend Moz went with about a year ago. They do the road back to front compare to a lot of tour groups, so they don’t hit all the spots at the same time as millions of other buses. Perfect for me, who’s not a huge fan of organised tours or being herded along like a sheep.
There’s not a huge amount to say about the GOR. It’s one of those things you have to do. It’s beautifully, stunningly scenic, and filled with wildlife. I saw kolas, emu’s, echidnas and roos in the wild, as well as all the funky birds in Oz (you know, the ones with the cool hairdos). If you’ve ever driven Chapman’s Peak Drive in South Africa, it reminded me of that (CPD is classed as one of the most scenic drives in the world, and I was lucky enough to do it back in 2011).
Rock formations, amazing beaches, rainforest, wildlife, the lighthouse from ‘Round the Twist’; it was all there. I think photos can show more than I can try to explain.
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!
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Laos. Pronounced Lao. Unless you’re French, then it’s got an S on the end. I’m not sure which one is right. In my head it’s Lao, so we’ll go with that.
This is a country that’s sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam to the West and East, And China and Cambodia to the North and South. A small, unassuming country, as much as I’d heard. One that was bombed relentlessly throughout the Vietnam-America war, unfortunately getting stuck in the middle of something that was nothing to do with them.
Before visiting, I heard nothing but good things about Lao. People I’ve spoken to that have visited have loved it. Loved it’s chilled out vibe and it’s welcoming and friendly people. I’ve heard many times it’s a place that people wished they had spent more time in. A place where time seems to stand still, and an aura so laid back you feel positively horizontal. A country so breathtakingly beautiful you’d wonder where you were and whether it was real.
So it kind of had a lot to live up to, although I’d purposely kept an open mind. I’d not known really what to expect, and deliberately not done much reading too far in advance. I really try not to have too many expectations of places, I don’t want to build something up, or have unrealistic expectations, or want to end up being disappointed. Things are all different to everyone. The same experience for two people even at the same time can be, and usually is, completely different. So, and I think I’ve said this before, you can’t predict travel, and you wouldn’t want to.
I wasn’t disappointed. All those people were right. Laos IS amazing. It’s scenery is some of the most beautifully stunning I’ve ever seen, it feels unique, the pace of life is so laid back I’ve never felt so relaxed, and each place we visited was filled with lovely, smiley happy people. We were here for just over 2 weeks, in 6 different places, and each place just kept getting better and better. Was it long enough? Yes and no. Yes, in that no place felt rushed and I’ve felt I’ve seen and experienced what I wanted to, without feeling like I’ve missed anything. No, in that I’m sure I could spend longer here, visiting more amazing places and continuing to be wowed after every turn in the road or bend in the river. Next time maybe.
I guess we started as we meant to go on. Crossing the river (and the border) from Northern Thailand we landed in a small border town called Houayxai to spend a night before getting on a slowboat for two days to meander down the Mekong River to Laos’ second city, Luang Prabang, a UNESCO world heritage site. We’d decided in Thailand to skip booking on a convenient package deal that got us to and across the border, as well as on the slow boat, in favour for making it across ourselves. This wasn’t really as difficult as it might sound, and means that for that first night we stayed in Laos rather than in a small border town called Chiang Khong in Thailand. As towns go, Houayxai is pretty uninspiring; there’s not a lot there apart from some guesthouses, restaurants and a few small shops because it’s mainly used as a stopover. Nevertheless, we decided it’s all about what you make of it. After finding a place to stay, we dumped our bags and went in search of local facilities*. A sparky young couple had a shop near to the ferry landing where they kept holding a sign up exclaiming they “have everything you want”, so feeling the need to challenge this, I asked them if they had an elephant. They didn’t. Which was disappointing. However, somewhat more reasonably, we did tell them that they actually probably didn’t have what we really wanted, which was somewhere to sit and have a cheap cold beer. Within seconds, we had two little chairs out on the pavement in front of the shop (blue for Nick, pink for me), a beer crate on it’s side as a table and two cold BeerLao plonked in our hands. OK, we had to hand it to them, they were pretty good. Within the hour, we’d been given bar snacks (some kind of fruit/vegetable thing called Magdelen – no idea on spelling) and had attracted a little group of Westerners to join us. Our little pavement bar had increased ten fold, and we managed to triple their sandwich orders for the next day’s slowboat. We made some new friends, enjoyed some cheap beers and got to know King Kong, Tom and their little daughter Manny, our new shopkeeper buddies. For what could have been an unremarkable stopover in a border town it turned out to be an unforgettable evening, and the most unexpected yet perfect introduction to Laos.
Ever been on a slowboat? I hadn’t. So I’m not sure what I expected, but perhaps what we got wasn’t quite it. A small, narrow boat filled with seats, some of which were wooden, some which looked like they had just-been-lifted-from-a-1970’s-bus. There were numbers, but they were on scraps of paper. Originally our seats were the wooden ones, but after sitting down for a few seconds we realised that two days of that would not be A Good Thing. So, in the true sense of “you snooze, you lose” we swapped around like some others and bagged a 1970’s bus seat. I’m not proud of myself, but, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. First rule of travelling: get there early.
So, what followed were two days of [relative] comfort, stunning (I’ll use that word a lot about Lao, so I’ll apologise now; sorry) scenery, a jovial, party atmosphere and new friends, interspersed with a night’s stay in a very small town called Pakbeng, which, if it were in England it would probably be described as a very small hamlet. Two days on a boat, gliding down the Mekong River, watching Lao life go by was just serene. Nowhere else to be and nothing else to do but to just sit and watch, to wonder and daydream. You might be thinking all those empty hours, a bit boring, not filled with anything. But they are, every second is really. It just depends on your perception. They’re filled to the brim with smells, sounds, conversations, food, and things to look at. Waterfalls, goats, cows, trees, houses, boats, mountains, people, fishing nets, rocks, speedboats, water buffalos, whirlpools. You name it, we saw it. Including a man who looked just like the dad in Modern Family. I might have stared at him quite a bit. Then it reminded me of being in Zambia, so I spent a bit of time remembering my time there. Peanut butter, modern family, stars, cocktails, pictionary and awesome, awesome people. Seems so long ago now. A wonderful, wonderful month. Oh, and another thing I learnt on this trip. Do not eat Ice Cream flavour Oreo’s. They sound nice, but they really, really bloody well aren’t. Trust me on this one.
Pakbeng was a bit non descript. It really is just a stopover place, filled with guesthouses and restaurants, but on the banks of the Mekong with lovely views. The most exciting thing that happened here was a huge spider (and I mean huge, the size of a hand) that was in the room opposite us. We were sat out on the balcony at night putting the world to rights when the two girls from the room shot out into the corridor. They pointed to inside the room, and there it was, Spidey stuck on one of the walls. The guys in another room came to join in and have a look, and then ran to get a biologist who was in another room. So, about 8 of us were standing there watching Biologist Man arm himself with a carrier bag to take down the offending creature. He succeeded, but not before Spidey made a mad, very fast, dash for freedom (and some squealing from the girls). Luckily, he was no match for Biologist Man’s almost superhuman reactions and soon Spidey was let loose, free to live another day.
The next morning in Pakbeng was an early start because we’d been told the elephants in a conservation park across the river are brought down to the Mekong at about 6:30am, so, alarms set, up we got and were rewarded with a small herd of elephants playing in the river for about 20 minutes. Priceless. So many people on the boat missed this, as they were gone by the time a lot of people started to arrive. It also meant we got good comfy seats again. Bonus. Although, this was kind of negated when, with about 4 hours left to go on the second day, I gave my seat up to a Lao lady who I’m sure was about 109 years who got on half way. I just couldn’t let her sit on the floor.
Arriving in Luang Prabang at tea time, the usual ritual was carried out. Find guest house, negotiate cheap price, dump stuff, go out and find cheap beers, sit, toast new location and relax. Found somewhere ran by a lovely old chap, which was the cheapest place yet (around £1.66 each a night), and had an excellent Indian with cheap beers two doors down which was handy seeing as though about 15 minutes after we got there the heavens opened to some of the heaviest monsoon rain I’ve seen for a while.
Luang Prabang is one of the prettiest places I’ve been to. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site because of it’s well-preserved fusion of traditional Lao and European colonial architecture. It’s very laid back. Not sure why, couldn’t give you an exact reason. But, it’s the kind of place for wandering around at a slow pace, sitting in a cafe or restaurant for long breakfasts, brunches, lunches and dinners and generally not doing a lot else. Most people stay here longer than they intended. It’s quite a small place too, and was a bit strange bumping into lots of people we ‘knew’ and recognised from the slowboat.
We were really lucky that the annual full moon festival of lights (Lai Heua Fai) was happening the day after we arrived. This is where all the neighbourhoods build large floats, covered in lights, to be paraded down the main street to be then set sail down the Mekong. The whole town was covered in lanterns and lights, with music and drum beats sounding out. The atmosphere was just magical, the sky lit up with thousands of sky lanterns and the Mekong full of floating flower decorations with flickering candles. We walked with float number one all the way down the street and to the temple at the end, then found a spot down by the river to watch them all sail past. It was an amazing, unforgettable night, and I’m hugely chuffed that we were lucky enough to be a part of it.
We hired bikes and did a fair bit of walking, but we also took a bit of time to have a good old rest too, staying here six days in the end before tearing ourselves away to take the bumpiest minibus journey In The World to a place called Nong Khiaw. You might have read about Nong Khiaw in my 13th Runs around the world post. Hugely, hugely scenic place. Scenery to blow you away. A very pleasant few days were spent here, with lots of walking, cave visits, sandwiches, interactions with local families, especially the cute little kids in the villages. We stayed in a noisy guest house and got a bit ill for a day but it didn’t really dampen any spirits, and we still managed to do at least something every day. The last day we got up really early to climb to the top of the viewpoint which is normally a 1.5 hour climb. We did it in 45 minutes, which I’m going to claim as a bloody good achievement, seeing as though I was still ill, it was early, hot and sweaty. Worth every step for the beautiful views from the top; of the morning clouds wrapped around the top of the mountains where it really did feel like I was on top of the world.
Soon after clambering down the mountain, we left Nong Khiaw to go to a place called Muang Ngoi, a small town on the banks of the Nam Ou river, only accessible by boat. Jammed in a tiny narrowboat with over 20 other people and their backpacks, sacks of rice, boxes of crisps and other food stuffs, we set off over an hour after we were supposed to. This could be said we left on time. Over here you see, there’s no real rules. Sometimes you leave on time, sometimes you go early, sometimes you go late. It all depends on what you’re in, and whether there’s enough people. That’s just the way it is. A good way to learn more patience. Like the time we waited 5 hours on the side of the road since 5:15am for the bus to Vietnam. But that’s another story.
Muang Ngoi I think is classed as a town. But it’s tiny. Teeny tiny. Like Pakbeng, you’d probably class it as a hamlet. One main road, filled with guest houses, restaurants and local houses. Lots of chickens. Lots of tractor contraptions moving things about. A few scooters but not many. Children running and playing. Usual ritual was followed. Cheapest place yet, I think about £1.20 each a night, a bungalow in a set of 5 ran by a guy called Saylon, the cheeriest, funniest and cheekiest chap in town. We had great banter with him for the few days we were there. While enjoying our new location beer, I got jumped on by a gecko. T’was a bit startling, but there’s a first time for everything. I just had to have another beer to get over the shock.
Muang Ngoi is surrounded by even better scenery that Nong Khiaw. Which I didn’t think was possible, but the whole area is so damn stunning I can’t say I’m that surprised. We spent a morning climbing up to another cave and viewpoint and then decided that was far too much exertion for one day, and so spent the afternoon in a lovely cafe lounging on their very comfy seats drinking beer, listening to jazz, watching the sun set over the mountains and eating lovely food. We talked about the real world. What is the real world? The real world to us that day, that Wednesday afternoon, was right there, right then. And what a perfect real world that is too.
The next day we decided to get out and about and do a trek to one of the outlying villages. We took a route that involved lots of butterflies, fields, sunshine, more absolutely stunning scenery, crops, mosquitos and leeches. To carry on at one bit meant crossing a small river with no bridge. Shoes off, wade through. Then inspect feet and legs for leeches. Pull leeches off that have latched on. Or, in my case, don’t inspect feet, put socks and shoes back on and find leech later on once it’s had a bit of a fill of my blood.
The village we ended up in was amazing. A proper rural village, not a tourist place. Real Lao life. Wooden bamboo houses on stilts. No roads. Chickens and cockerels everywhere. People bathing and washing clothes in the river. I did feel very much like an intruder, though, in their obvious close community and I do wonder what the Lao people think of people like us coming to visit. It was very humbling, something I will remember forever, and an experience that I feel blessed to have had.
Leaving Muang Ngoi was a mixed bag. It signalled the end of our time in Laos; our next place to stay was Muang Khua but this was only a stopover to get the bus to Vietnam the next day (after that 5 hour wait). But I was excited to move on, to know that a new country was just around the corner. But not before another blissful 4 hour narrowboat journey through more stunning scenery. This one had however had the added excitement of a stop off by our drivers to gut a dead deer and sling it in the back with our backpacks. Just a usual thing out here. And that’s a weird thing. Is that it didn’t seem weird. Because that kind of thing happens. We go past a chap in a boat who shouts something, our drivers shout something back, we stop, take innards out of a deer, chuck it back in the boat, off we go. Stuff like seeing chickens on the back of mopeds. Or boxes of frogs at markets. Or dead dogs hung up. Travel, it broadens the mind. Because all this stuff is real life. Just not quite the same as real life back in the UK.
We spent just over two weeks in Laos, but it seemed more. It was a special two weeks, and Laos is the kind of country that I feel thankful to have been a visitor. Thankful that the Lao people allowed me to have a glimpse at their beautiful, laid back country.
*somewhere to get cheap beer
Nong Khiaw, Laos
Today’s run was in Laos, which is possibly the most laid back country I have been to. This maybe explains why I’ve been here about a week and a half now and this is my first run here. It’s a place that when you arrive, you instantly chill out. I’m not sure exactly why; I can’t quite choose one thing, or put my finger on it. It’s just one of those feelings.
I arrived in Laos by a two day slowboat trip down the Mekong River. Clearly no chance for running on those two days. I had no choice but to sit back, put my feet up and enjoy the ride. Arriving in Luang Prabang, we spent nearly a week there but I just couldn’t bring myself to be bothered to run. We walked and cycled lots, so it’s not like I wasn’t active. And I even saw other people jogging. But, I just didn’t fancy it most of the time. Only two times did I think about it; the first day I decided to go for food instead, and the other day it was heavy rain ALL day. Now I don’t mind running in the rain but this was monsoon-type downpours so there was no chance I was getting out in that. Luang Prabang was one of those places where you couldn’t walk fast; no one hurried, everything was at a leisurely pace. Everyone just loped around slowly with big fat smiles on their faces and nothing more pressing to do than wander around temples, climb Phousi Hill to see the town from up above or just saunter from restaurant to restaurant sampling all the different food. Pretty much every person that goes there that we either spoke to or read about ended up extending their stay but at least a day or so, if not longer.
Eventually, we managed to tear ourselves away from LP (as it’s affectionately known) and hopped on a very bouncy local minibus to get to a place called Nong Khiaw, about 2 1/2 hours north of Luang Prabang. It’s a small, dusty town that’s a bit off the beaten track, and is (according to my Rough Guide) smack bang in the middle of some of the most dramatic scenery in the whole of Indochina. They weren’t wrong. Every corner, everywhere you look, each side of the bridge and far into the distance there’s another stunning view. Another mountain, a river, a quaint village or a cliff face. Let’s face it, Laos is truly stunning. Every morning when I get up and look out the window I’m reminded and blown away by just how beautiful it is. So, I was determined to run here. Plus, the roads were fairly flat and the temperature is a bit cooler than the other places I’ve come to, which would be a first for months, and something I’d very much welcome.
My first plan to run was scuppered by managing to either get a bug or food poisoning. Whichever one it was meant I felt a bit crappy for a couple of days, and although I managed to get out and about for a few walks, I had very little energy as I’d eaten no food and so [probably sensibly] decided a run wouldn’t be the best idea. So, feeling a bit better, this morning was the morning. Before I had chance to wake up properly, I jumped (not literally but I like the idea) out of bed and into my running gear (sadly not with any help from an automatic Wallace-and-Gromit style machine – although that would be good).
First thought? Oooh, it’s cool. Temperature wise. This is a big change. For all the time I’ve been travelling I’ve been running in really hot and often extremely humid temperatures. Here, it’s a bit cooler in the mornings and at night, and so this would be a different run. I maybe don’t have to say how pleased I was at this, as you might have already guessed that although I don’t like being cold, I don’t like being too hot with high humidity more. So this was like a breath of fresh air literally. Because the first thing I noticed was that my lungs hurt. You know, that kind of first-run-in-England-when-the-weather-starts-to-turn kind of cold. Hurts your lungs until to get used to it, or after you’ve run in the cold a few times. I didn’t think it was that cold (it was probably in the low 20’s) but it just shows how my body has got used to the different temperatures.
Second thought? Shit, I have no energy. I’m not really surprised, seeing as though the only things I’ve eaten in two days is an white bread egg baguette and half a can of Pepsi, which pretty much came back up a short while later.
Third thought? Get a grip, get on with it and just do a couple of miles.
So I did. And it wasn’t too bad. It was hard work, yes, my legs were weary, my lungs hurt, but I got into a rhythm, enjoyed some tunes, gazed at the mist covered mountains, chuckled to myself at the odd looks I was getting from the Lao schoolkids going to school, avoided the chickens that constantly run across the roads here, waved at the little kids peeking out the doors of the houses lining the main road and smashed a [slightly pathetic] two miles out. Only two miles, but it’s better than nothing. It was a faster two miles than I’d done in months, which hopefully proves I’m slower in the heat/humidity and not just horrifically unfit. And I can’t forget I’m still a bit ill. I know I’m not 100% yet. So I felt better for going, and am looking forward to my next run. It won’t be here in Nong Khiaw, because we’re moving on tomorrow. We’re only in Laos for a few more days, so I’m probably not going to be able to run again in this beautiful country I feel humbled to be visiting, however once is once enough to have it forever in my memory.