Phnom Penh

So after an exhausting period of transit I was finally on a bus from HCMC (in ‘Nam) to Phnom Penh (in Cambodia). The bus stopped at the border for us to sort out visa’s etc, and then took us all the way to the Cambodian capital. Getting off the bus there was one of the few times I felt a bit overwhelmed and stressed out during my entire trip – I’d booked a hostel, but had no Riel (the official currency), no US dollars (the unofficial currency), no idea where I was and most importantly at that time no battery left on my phone. It was also blisteringly hot. We were dropped by a huge marketplace and immediately surrounded by people peddling tuk-tuks, food etc. It was chaotic and I needed to get away from it so I just picked a direction and started walking.

Luckily I found a travel agent who let me charge my phone long enough to discover where my hostel was, and miraculously I’d been walking roughly in the right direction anyway. I eventually made it and I’ve never been so grateful to check in somewhere, have a shower and relax for a bit. The hostel was owned by a really nice British expat and his Khmer wife, who were both great at helping me with where to go, how to get money out and what food to try.

I went out that evening and stumbled upon a market where I met another solo traveller – a girl called Alba from Spain. We explored together and stopped for food, then found the riverfront which was a cue to stop for some beers as night fell. We met a few other backpackers and agreed to sign up for some tours together through the hostel in the morning. As I’ll explain later, Cambodia had by far the friendliest and most social backpackers of any country I visited!

The next day I went on one of the most harrowing trips ever – first to the Tuol Sleng genocide museum, and then to the Choeung Ek killing fields. If you’re not aware of the Cambodian genocide, it was carried out by Pol Pot who led the Khmer Rouge, during the late 1970s. It resulted in the death of over a quarter of Cambodia’s population – anyone who was literate, considered intellectual, or even just had soft hands, were rounded up and either worked to death, or worse, tortured until they confessed to crimes they didn’t commit for which they were executed. Up to 3 million died in total.

The first stop was Tuol Sleng. A former high school, it was taken over by the Khmer Rouge and used as a prison during the genocide – the notorious S21.

DSC_0767Prisoners were brought in, tortured in the most horrific manners possible and then taken away to be executed. Their forced ‘confessions’ would usually involve naming family and friends who would in turn also be rounded up and killed. Of the 17,000 who passed through the prison, there were only 7 survivors. That’s a survival rate of 0.04%. Amazingly, one of the survivors was at that prison the day I visited, answering questions about his time there and selling copies of a book he wrote about his experience. Hearing it first hand just made it more real and even more horrific.

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One of the most horrible things about visiting was seeing the thousands of photos of the prisoners – every single one was photographed on arrival and catalogued. There were photos of children, babies, pregnant women, elderly. All ages and genders – and all were tortured and killed. One photo of a mother holding a baby stood out as the caption informed us that after the photo was taken, the baby was taken from her arms and killed in front of her. As we walked around we could still see what looked like bloodstains on some floors and walls – as well as the crude cells people were kept in and the beds prisoners were chained to and beaten.

After such a grim morning at Tuol Sleng, it only got worse in the afternoon as we travelled to the killing fields of Choeung Ek. Without going into too much detail, sites such as the one we visited (and there were many throughout the country) where were people were taken to be executed and then chucked in a mass grave. To save ammunition, they were not even shot – instead many were clubbed to death. The amount of bones and skulls was sickening – and the worst thing was walking along the paths through the fields and seeing bits of cloth, jewellery and worst of all bone poking through the soil. It was an incredibly depressing place to visit but very important to go and see, and remember as well. The fields themselves look quite pleasant if you don’t know the atrocities they conceal, so thankfully it has turned into a good final resting place for the thousands ‘buried’ there.

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Yes, that says what you think it does 😦

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It was a thoroughly depressing day but I’m very glad I did it and it’s essential for any visitor to the country to go and see and learn about what happened. The tuk-tuk ride back to the hostel was quite quiet!

One thing that struck me about Phnom Penh in comparison to the other South-east Asian cities I’d been to was how poor it felt in comparison. There were almost no cars, only bikes and tuk-tuks. Litter was everywhere, there were few pavements and roads and houses were in poor condition. Of course, it had some nice upmarket areas, which were a pleasure to explore, but the definite feel was one of a country still feeling the effects of its past. In my short time in the capital I saw a lot and met some great people, but all too soon I boarded another minibus for the 4 hour drive over to the town of Siem Reap – the gateway to the magnificent old city of Angkor.

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Conquering Mt. Fansipan

The night train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, a small town just a couple of kilometres from the border with China, was far more pleasant than the previous sleeper train journeys I’d taken – largely because I paid about 100,000VND more (about £3.30) for the upgrade to first class, which granted me a carriage in which the air-con worked properly, as well as a more spacious bottom bunk as opposed to being crammed against the roof.

Unlike the previous trains, most of the passengers were also backpackers; Lao Cai serves as a transit point for those wishing to reach Sapa, which is a 40km minibus ride away. Like all of the others, I was also headed to Sapa, and after a relatively decent night’s sleep (though I missed all of the scenery once the sun came up), disembarked in the early hours of the morning. Leaving the platform, the situation immediately became one of utter chaos as everyone tried to find the minibus company or agent they had booked with. Luckily my height proved an advantage and I spotted my bus quickly.

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Minibuses everywhere at Lao Cai

The journey from Lao Cai to Sapa was absolutely spectacular – Sapa is a mountain town at an elevation of around 1,500m, so we were winding our way uphill the entire time with amazing views over the mountain valleys and rice paddies that covered every inch of fertile hillside. However, the journey was a little scary too, as the drivers of every minibus seemed to insist on travelling at breakneck speeds around every corner despite the oncoming traffic and looming drops on either side.

Once the hair-raising journey was over, I was dropped in the Sapa town centre, which was just beginning to wake up – it was still only around 7am by that point. The reason I’d travelled all the way to Sapa was to climb Indochina’s tallest mountain – Mount Fansipan, part of the Hoang Lien Son range (an eastern extension of the Himalayas), which stretches across Northern Vietnam and into China. The climb was set to be in several parts – first a hike up to the base camp that day, where we would then spend the night on the mountainside and in view of the summit. Then, early the next morning we would summit and return to base camp, from where we would eventually make our way back down to the base of the mountain.

I met up with the rest of the group I’d be climbing with – Fleur, Stephen, Anna, Leonie and Jeroen. There were some others but they didn’t complete the climb – I’ll explain later. After a quick shower to refresh after the train, we repacked our bags with the essentials for the climb and then met up with our sherpas. They piled us into a minibus and we drove out of town to the remote location which signified the start of the trail up the mountain. The sherpas sorted out our climbing permits and then we set off – still only around 10am in the morning.

The first couple of hours were easy enough as there was no serious incline – mainly just trekking through the jungle in the foothills at the base of the mountain. There were some tricky parts as the downpour the previous day had reduced sections to steep climbs up mounds of mud and clay. Unfortunately the burn on my leg had blistered and turned into a bit of an open wound, and all the dressings I tried to put on just kept sliding off. I covered it in antiseptic cream and just hoped for the best, but it got covered in mud and dirt so was pretty sore.

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Following a stream upriver in the jungle undergrowth. It was absolutely sweltering.

Soon we noticed that we were going upill a lot more than down and through the gaps in the trees we could glimpse Fansipan and the surrounding mountains occasionally, their peaks obscured by clouds.

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One of the neighbouring mountains.

Eventually we reached a couple of huts which signified our stop for lunch – the sherpas rustled up some delicious Bahn Mi which filled us up. Unfortunately in the heat and humidity I’d already drunk about half of my water – water that was supposed to last for the entire climb and descent. When I realised that I rationed it much better, but it meant I was quite thirsty.

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The lunch spot.

We only stopped for lunch for about half an hour, before continuing on as the terrain became far more uneven and the path gave way to a very rough track that we wouldn’t have noticed were it not for the Sherpa’s, who knew the route like the back of their hands. (Interestingly a British guy died on the mountain last year in the month before I climbed it, when trying to ascend it on his own).

We emerged from the lower jungle in the early afternoon and suddenly the climb got a lot harder, and steeper. We had to use ladders and ropes to get up some sections and we were climbing up rocks and boulders for much of it.

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The route up.

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What amazed me was how slippy the grip was even with my hiking trainers, whilst the Sherpas maintained perfect balance in just a pair of sandals, with all of our cooking equipment and food on their backs. The views turned from good to spectacular too, as our route mainly stuck to the crest of one of the mountain’s ridges, so we had expansive views to either side.

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As the afternoon wore on though these views were hampered as we went into the clouds, so that all we could see was the the path in front of us, with any views to either side obscured by thick white cloud. It was quite surreal, and also refreshing as the cloud cooled the air and almost made us feel cold. The climb at this point followed a familiar pattern – reach the end of a long, steep stretch, exhausted, and feel quite relieved. Then turn the corner to find a longer, steeper stretch awaiting. We took rest breaks increasingly frequently and finished the last of our water (which was supposed to last another couple of days). Luckily, we were able to refill our bottles from a natural spring as the water was so pure at that height there was no risk of any poisoning. After an age, we finally spotted base camp ahead of us, perched on the side of the mountain. The final climb up took another hour, which was agonising, but eventually we made it.

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Base camp!

Our bed for the night was basically a big wooden bench that fit six of us, in a large wooden hut. We had sleeping bags, but it definitely wasn’t very comfy! That evening the Sherpas cooked us a great meal (I think it was chicken) and then we sat outside the hut playing Uno until we could no longer see. The view over the Sapa valley was just unbelievable, and with the total lack of light pollution we saw a huge array of stars as night fell. We had to get an early night though, as we were due to be up at 3am in order to summit. The uncomfortable conditions made sleep difficult though so I don’t think anyone got more than 3-4 hours. The Sherpas were ready when we woke up though with some strong Vietnamese coffee, which was badly needed by us all. In complete darkness we left base camp (leaving most of our stuff there and taking only the essentials), and using only the light from our phone torches we began the steepest part of the climb yet; up to the summit.

I’m not going to lie, climbing by torchlight in the pitch black didn’t feel particularly safe, as we could barely make out the path in daytime, let alone at night. Thankfully the first signs of dawn rolled in around 5am, making it light enough to just about see where we were treading. Although the goal had been to reach the summit for sunrise, we missed it by over an hour and so instead had to settle for watching it come up as we were halfway up the mountainside. But that took nothing away from it – it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. The pictures don’t come close to doing it justice, but here you go:

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After marvelling at the sunrise for long enough (and taking a much needed rest), we pressed on with the summit in sight. At one point our path was blocked by this snake:

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Naturally none of us knew whether it was venomous or not so we left it the hell alone. Unfortunately it seemed to be enjoying basking in the morning sunlight and so eventually Stephen threw a stone near to it, which scared it off (luckily not towards us).

Side note: Out of interest I emailed that picture and a description of the snake to a guy called Vern Lovic, an expert in Southeast Asian snakes. He kindly identified it for me as Protobothrops Jerdonii – a type of venomous pit-viper native to Vietnam, Burma and China. Its venom can be deadly so in hindsight I’m glad we stayed well away from it….

Snake out of the equation, we kept climbing and finally, finally saw the summit ahead of us. Tragically, the Vietnamese government has decided that Mt Fansipan is such an attraction that it deserves a cable car to the summit – and so there is a huge development at the summit underway building a cable car, restaurant and visitor centre. Whilst I can’t blame them for doing everything possible to encourage tourism, it was a huge shame that the beautiful peak has been blighted by an ugly cable car and a collection of buildings. It also means reaching the summit feels slightly less of an achievement! Still, we were relieved to have reached the peak, and immensely proud as well. The summit is obscured with cloud the vast majority of the time, but thankfully the gods were smiling on us and we seemed to have picked the one cloud free day all month! The reward was yet more unbelievable views – we could see all across the Sapa valley, look down on the smaller peaks and gaze into China to our North.

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Looking back the way we came…

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Made it!

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A little look into China.

It was really stunning and definitely made the gruelling climb worth it. As we summitted so early in the morning, none of the cable-car tourists had made their way up yet, so we had the peak to ourselves. Just the six of us, our shepas, and the other members of the group – who didn’t make it up until about an hour after the rest of us, and were so tired they took the cable car down as opposed to climbing!

Secretly a part of me was glad for the cable car development – as it gave us the chance to buy extra drinks and food for the descent – as well as a beer to drink on the roof of Indochina. It felt goooooood.

After about an hour or two on the summit we started to retrace our steps back to base camp, which took forever as we were all exhausted, and the route was so up-and-down it was at least a couple of hours to get back. There we rested, had some food and enjoyed our last few minutes above the clouds.

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Heading back down to base camp (on the left).

The climb down from base camp and the subsequent trek to where we had started was incredibly tiring; by the end we were all so exhausted even the smallest hill was a massive challenge to get over. It took all morning an afternoon to get down, and when we finally stumbled into view of our starting point the relief was massive. Thankfully there was a minibus waiting for us, and we all just crashed onto the seats and slept on the drive back into town.

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One of many rests we needed on the way down.

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Good spot for a sit-down.

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Stephen with his trusty walking stick.

I don’t know how the Sherpas do it – they were smaller than all of us (the youngest was only 15), carried more than us and yet never got tired and were booked to do it all again the day after our trip ended – it’s crazy. Massive thanks to them as we’d have never done it without them. It was definitely one of the hardest things I did on my entire trip but it felt like a huge achievement reaching the top. That night after the best shower of my life in one of the most amazing hostels I stayed in (check out the view) the six of us who got up and down met up in Sapa for drinks and a pizza. Its a great little town – quite touristy but that’s for good reason with the surrounding scenery. The streets had a good atmosphere in the evening and it was a good night (although an early one because we were all so tired).

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Postcard view from the hostel.

The next day I rented a motorbike from my hostel and set out to explore the terraced rice paddies, fields and hills that make Sapa so famous. I must have ridden around 100km+ that day as I went to Lao Cai and back as well as through lots of small villages hidden away in different valleys. Riding a motorbike was such an addictive feeling, and it allowed me to see so much of the area in just a day, for only $4 for the rental and $1.50 petrol! Here are a few pics:

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Sapa and Mt Fansipan absolutely charmed me during my fairly short stay, so it felt all too soon getting onboard the nightbus back to Hanoi. Before I left I had to visit the hospital as the burn on my leg had become infected during the climb and was looking pretty nasty. Luckily they checked for blood poisoning and I was all alright so they dressed it up, gave me a load of meds and creams to take, charged me $40 and sent me on my way. I’ll definitely be returning to Sapa when I’m back in Vietnam next month, I feel like there is still loads more to see and discover there (plus I want to go back to the place where I had the best Pho in ‘Nam).

The bus arrived back in Hanoi at around 3am, and with no hostel booked and dwindling money supplies I didn’t have much choice but to sit under cover on the street until morning, with the most torrential rainstorm ever happening all night. The amazing people at the hostel I’d stayed at previously in Hanoi very kindly let me shower once they opened up in the morning – then I grabbed some more Pho and continued my exhausting 36 hours of travel by making my way to the airport for a flight to HCMC. Arriving at about 2am, I again had to rough it at the airport rather than waste money on a hotel for half a night. Finally, once morning arose I dragged myself into town and got on a bus to one of the final stops on my trip – Cambodia!

If you want to see a picture of the burn on my leg, I’ve put it below. It’s not pretty, so you’ve been warned:

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Cat Ba Island

So I’m back with another entry and one step closer to finally finishing this blog. Just a forewarning – this post has a LOT OF PICTURES! Writing this entry made me realise just how brilliant the last 5 weeks of my trip was – as some of my favourite parts of my entire time away are coming up in the next few blog posts. I absolutely cannot wait to go back to this part of the world again in a couple of months time, and relieve some of the things I did once again…

Anyway, after a whirlwind few days in Hanoi with some great people I departed the city early in the morning, bound for Cat Ba Island. I’d chosen to visit Cat Ba for a number of reasons. Firstly, a visit to UNESCO World Heritage Site Ha Long Bay is an absolute must of any trip to Northern Vietnam – and Cat Ba Island is the largest island in the bay, making it a great base to explore Ha Long and the neighbouring (and less visited) Lan Ha bays. Secondly, the Island has a huge national park and hundreds of acres of jungle to explore. Lastly, at this point in my trip I felt like getting away from the chaos of South-East Asian towns and cities for a little while – Cat Ba Island just has one small town on it making it a great place to relax for a while.

So, I paid my 210,000VND (about £7) and hopped on a stylish coach from Hanoi to the coastal city of Hai Phong (seriously, the intercity buses in Asia are so much nicer than what we deal with in the UK). I slept for most of the journey and before long we pulled off the main road and headed for the port. The bus journey became a little more interesting when we took another turn and went down an unbelievably bumpy dirt track – offroading in a 60 seater coach, interesting! Thankfully for my spine it was quite a short track and we reached a little jetty where we all crammed on a small ferry to the island.

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The boat that took us to the island. It went so fast and kicked up so much spray that sitting near a window meant you’d get absolutely soaked…

The boat journey was pretty unremarkable but soon the mountains of Cat Ba loomed above us, and we docked at some flatlands to the North West, where another coach was waiting to take us the remaining 40mins across the island to Cat Ba Town. As I was exhausted, I didn’t really take much in, so just wandered up a couple of streets until I found my hostel, checked in, and then crashed out for a few hours. That afternoon I set out for a stroll to have a look at the three beaches accessible from the main town – all were horrible, and absolutely rammed. Cat Ba is not famed for the town’s beaches, and for good reason.

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A view of the town on the cloudy day I arrived. Not the most photogenic coastal town I’ve seen! Note the floating restaurant in the foreground.

I quickly realised that the town is pretty miserable on the whole – it’s just a functioning cluster of streets all designed with tourism in mind – Cat Ba Island is a massively popular destination for the Vietnamese and Chinese. Still, I had a really enjoyable evening regardless, heading out for some drinks with a couple of people from the dorm, ending up in a karaoke bar until 2am where our company had swelled from three of us to about 20!

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Good times in the Karaoke bar

The next day though I woke and headed out on an all-day boat trip around Lan Ha and Ha Long bay. It was absolutely magnificent. We sailed past floating villages, kayaked into lagoons and through caves in the limestone rock faces, ate fresh fish caught that morning by the crew for lunch and all the while were surrounded by one of the most beautiful landscapes in the entire world. The pictures I took don’t come close to doing the place justice – for a better example of what it’s really like just google ‘Ha Long Bay’ and take a look. Anyway, here’s a few I took anyway:

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It was cloudy, but still a nice and humid 35 degrees.

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Kayaking – we headed through a cave that went right through the rockface on the right and emerged into a beautiful lagoon.

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A bit of sunshine

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Moving away from Lan Ha Bay and into Ha Long Bay

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One of the many floating villages we passed

One of the highlights was stopping off at Monkey Island, named due to the colony of monkeys living there. Here, we swam to shore from the boat and then I set about climbing to the top of the Island where I had an amazing view over the bay. Sadly I couldn’t take my camera or phone from the boat as we had to swim quite far, but the view was truly incredible and well worth the very sketchy climb up over sharp rocks.

Another highlight of the trip included a great secluded beach that we stopped at, and the day was rounded off by the other people on board – we were a mix of all ages and from all around the world, everyone got on great. I’d recommend Ha Long or Lan Ha bay to anyone, it really is absolutely stunning.

Back at the hostel that night I got talking to Aleks, a girl sharing the same dorm as me. We got dinner at a great vegetarian restaurant – ‘Buddha Belly’ – which was probably the best food I had on the island (no surprises that we went back the following three nights, it was that good). The food on Cat Ba is pretty poor (bar the fish) so finding a decent restaurant  was good news.

I woke up early the next day and took a bit of a risk by hiring a motorbike for the day to explore the island properly. It’s astonishingly cheap – just $4 a day to hire, plus about $1.50 in fuel. Having never ridden one before, it was pretty nerve-wracking getting on for the first time and figuring out how to ride the thing. The guy pointed out the throttle, brake and ignition, then disappeared back into the shop and left me to my own devices. Unfortunately, the rental place was situated at the top of a hill so my only option was to point downwards and try to figure it out as I went down the hill. It was a lot ‘heavier’ than I expected (nothing like the motorised bicycle I’d basically been hoping for), so steering was very sketchy at first and I was so scared to use the throttle that the engine cut out halfway down the hill and I had to start it again while going along. Turning the corner at the bottom was a bit sketchy too, but I made it fine and then worked out how to use the throttle.

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My bike!

After that, it was honestly fine – incredibly easy to ride and really, really good fun. There wasn’t too much traffic on the island so that wasn’t an issue and the road rules were really easy to get the hang of – basically use the horn every 10 s and follow what everyone else does! I filled up with fuel and then set out to explore the rest of the island, which is basically uninhabited, incredibly peaceful and unbelievably beautiful.

It really looks like you’re in Jurassic Park for most of the time. Everywhere is covered by a dense jungle with peaks towering above you, the road winds in and out and around every corner lies a view that seems to improve upon the last:

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I rode for hours, right to the north of the island where the road enters Ha Long Bay and then just……. stops…..

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I rode to the west, where the flatlands stretched out with their mangroves and rice paddies…

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I went off road, past quarry’s and along the cow-filled coast road….

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And rode right up to the Cannon Fort, a Japanese WWII base with astonishing panoramic views over the southern part of the island……

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It really was one of the best days of my trip. The sun was shining, I had the breeze rushing past me and keeping me cool; it was great. That night I met up with Aleks again, we got on really well and decided to rent a bike again the next day so we could both go and explore. It was really interesting hearing how she’d been living and studying at Uni in China, Ghana and NY over the past couple of years, I was pretty jealous.

The next day was more of the same, but it was even more fun exploring with a friend riding pillion on the back. We visited the same spots I’d been to the day before, then checked out the incredible ‘Hospital Caves’ – an amazing construction from the American War, where the Vietnamese built an entire hospital inside a cave, which kept it hidden throughout the conflict.

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More like a jail than a hospital!

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The entrance to the hospital

We then stopped off at the national park, where an hour long hike took us to the top of Ngu Lam Peak – the views from the top were just ridiculous and we spent a good hour up there, taking them in and soaking up the sun.

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Chilling on the edge, our hard work in climbing up providing a just reward

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Unbelievable views!

We did have one small mishap when we took a wrong turning and were met by an incredibly aggressive guard dog. With thoughts of rabies flashing through our minds we tried to turn the bike around before it bit one of us, but in our panic toppled it. The dust it created made the dog back off long enough for us to get the bike upright, climb back on and drive off, but when it fell over the exhaust pipe had landed on my leg and burned it very badly, leaving a scar which I still have now, 9 months on. Aleks was completely unhurt luckily, and once we’d escaped we enjoyed the drive back into town. Bloody dogs!

That evening, we had another great meal at Buddha Belly and a few drinks at the seafront – one of the nicer spots of the town, with a great sunset view over the mass of floating restaurants and fishing boats that cluster around the town. I was staying in a different hostel that night and leaving the next day, so it was a little sad saying our goodbyes – you meet so many people when backpacking and make so many new friends, so saying goodbye to them so quickly is always pretty hard. Over the course of my trip I made hundreds of friends but probably 4 or 5 really good ones who I’ve stayed in touch with – Aleks was one so hopefully we’ll meet again.

Leaving Cat Ba the next morning, I returned to Hanoi for another night or two via the same bus-boat-bus combo that had taken me there. In Hanoi, I spent the days chilling and wandering the streets with people from the hostel, sampling the street food and sifting through the market stalls. It was another great few days in one of my favourite cities, but before long I was on the road again, headed for the mountain township of Sapa and the might Mount Fansipan, Indochina’s tallest mountain….

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Hanoi

So, almost 9 months after I got home I’ve decided to finally sit down and finish this blog by writing about the last few weeks of my trip. My second set of Uni exams are coming up in a couple of weeks so writing these posts makes a welcome break from revision… and its nice looking back again. In the summer I’ve decided to go back and spend another 2 months in Asia, primarily Vietnam, with a few of my friends from Uni, so that should be great fun too.

As I said in my last entry, a very long time ago now, my overnight train from Hue to Hanoi was far more pleasant than my earlier one from HCMC to Da Nang. The cabin was far more spacious, well air-conditioned and I even had space to turn around in my bunk. As a result I managed a good nights sleep, and so upon checking into my hostel in Hanoi’s hectic ‘Old Quarter’ I felt fully refreshed after a shower and an hour of sleep. The hostel itself was great – a family run place called the ‘Hanoi Brother Inn’ which only had one 8 bed dorm and  a few private rooms, but I met some awesome people there during my 4 night stay.

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Arriving at Hanoi Station, after a far more pleasant journey

Within a couple of hours I got talking to Gulio, an Italian guy who’d arrived the same day. We decided to head out together that evening for a look around the Old Quarter and Hang Kiem Lake. It’s a great part of the city; a bustling collection of stores selling everything and anything; from giant steel pans to padlocks and knives, from motorbike parts and tyres to all sorts of food, all flooding out of the shopfronts onto the pavements and streets. All of the roads are narrow and packed with cars, bikes and pedestrians so walking round takes a lot of concentration, but its a lot of fun!

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A quieter moment in the Old Quarter

We soon made our way to the lake and ended up having a beer or two at a rooftop bar overlooking the lake and the busiest part of the city. The lake provides a bit of peace and quiet from the chaos of the streets surrounding it, and has a charming little island which is said to be home to a load of giant turtles (definitely a questionable claim).

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Hang Kiem Lake at dusk

Returning into the Old Quarter after a look round, we grabbed some cheap street food for dinner at a strange little place that had some old Vietnamese guys singing karaoke on a wheel-along amp…. an interesting soundtrack to eat to.

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I miss the food in Vietnam so much. Some of the best in the world and you can get it for less than $2.

After dinner we stumbled along maybe the best street in Vietnam – Bia Hoi Street! Home to the cheapest beer in the world! Bia Hoi is a type of lager found exclusively in Northern Vietnam. It’s brewed fresh daily, then drunk in the evening. The bars in Bia Hoi street would serve it until they ran out each night (which they always did), charging just 3,000 to 5,000 VND per glass – that’s about £0.10-£0.16 per glass! What’s more is that it actually tastes pretty good and is very refreshing – you can’t beat it!

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Another busy night on Bia Hoi Street

Gulio headed off the next day, but after saying my goodbyes I headed off to the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ with Raleigh, a girl I met at the hostel over breakfast that morning. The ‘Hanoi Hilton’ is not a hotel at all, but is in fact a prison in the city centre, where the French kept Vietnamese communists during the colonial era. During the American war, it was used to house American POWs (including John McCain), and much of the prison still stands today.

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An imposing entrance

It was a pretty nasty place so I’ll spare you the details, but it goes without saying that conditions for inmates looked abysmal, despite what the propaganda (photos of American inmates enjoying a Christmas dinner etc) would have you believe. We then wandered around the city for a while, getting a feel for what daily life was like and just enjoying the mix of French-colonial architecture with the usual craziness of a Vietnamese city. We even saw a game of street badminton from across the road whilst having lunch!

Eventually we made our way towards the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, where the body of the communist revolutionary lies encased in a giant stone tomb. Unfortunately we were too late to go in that day, as it has very strict visiting hours, so we cut our losses and started the long walk back. We took a detour to go and explore the night market, where we enjoyed some great food for dinner, and then decided to head to Bia Hoi street (how can you resist when its 10p for a beer!). There we bumped into some other people from the hostel and had a really good evening talking travelling, books, films and allsorts until the early hours.

Raleigh and I went back to the Mausoleum the following morning along with a couple of other girls from the dorm. Thankfully, we were just in time to visit, scraping in at the back of the queue just before it was closed off. The Mausoleum is a very strange experience – you are stripped of your phone, camera etc (as photos are not allowed), before solemnly trooping into the building, up some stairs and then into the room where HCM’s body lies. All the while, you are watched like hawks by the many guards, and cannot slow down or hesitate at all. For most Vietnamese, however, paying tribute to HCM is very important and so it was well worth doing.

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The Mausoleum and parade grounds in all their glory.

As we were right at the end, the guards filed out behind us and we were treated to a sort of changing of the guard, which was great to watch. Intrigued by the whole experience, we then spent a few hours mooching around the neighbouring HCM museum, which fully explained his life and why he was such a hero in the country.

After stopping for lunch, the others headed back whilst I took the opportunity to go and see the Military History Museum, which had a massive collection of planes, tanks, helicopters and guns etc used by both sides during the American war. Here’s a few photos:

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The remains of a crashed American bomber

That night, I met up with the girls from the hostel again. We treated ourselves to a delicious dinner at a tiny little restaurant situated mainly on a balcony – then ended up at (once again) Bia Hoi street for some more drinks. The following morning, most of the others left whilst I had a day chilling in the hostel and exploring the Old Quarter. Sometimes, when you’re meeting new people everyday and always out on your feet it’s really nice to just spend a day reading, watching a film or two and just slowing the pace down a little – especially in a city like Hanoi!

I departed the next morning on a long bus trip to Hai Phong, a coastal city to the east of Hanoi. There, I boarded a boat bound for the magnificent Cat Ba Island, but I’ll save that for my next post 🙂

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Can Tho, Hoi An & Hue

For those who didn’t know: I’m back home! I flew back on Tuesday from Bangkok, bringing an end to an amazing 7 months of travel. I still have a couple of places to blog about so there’ll probably be 3 or 4 more entries total, including this one. Enjoy! When I finished my last entry I’d just covered the sleeper bus that Mum, Dad & I took from Ho Chi Minh City to Can Tho – which is the largest city in the Mekong delta region in Southern Vietnam.

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Leaving behind the French-colonial architecture of HCMC.

Can Tho itself was nothing particularly special. It had a very nice waterfront area with some good restaurants and markets, but the city itself wasn’t the reason for our visit. We were staying in a rather strange hotel (which had only recently opened), which seemed to have more staff than guests giving it a bit of a bizarre atmosphere – still, it was much nicer having a double bed to myself rather than the top bunk in a hostel dorm….

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Looking out over the Mekong river, in Can Tho.

The reason we visited the city was to get a look into local life along the Mekong and in the delta region. On the day of our arrival we walked through an busy street market with hundreds of vendors selling fresh fish, meat, vegetables, fruits, spices, herbs and much more. It was an explosion of colour and noise and was packed with locals all stocking up. The hygiene standards were questionable to say the least, however…

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Fresh seafood for sale at the Can Tho roadside market.

Early the next morning we woke at 4:30am and headed out for a look at Can Tho’s biggest draw – the famous Cái Răng floating market, which is the largest in Indochina. The three of us boarded a small boat with our guide for the day, and cruised along the Mekong river through the heart of Can Tho. Soon, river traffic started increasing and then all of a sudden we arrived at the floating market; a busy collection of boats of all shapes and sizes awaited us.

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The market was in full swing when we turned up at the early hour of 5:30am.

The floating market was different to the vision I had imagined in my head, but it was absolutely amazing nonetheless. Most of the locals who were there to buy bought things wholesale from larger boats, where entire families lived aboard around the clock and traded all day long. The produce each boat sold was easily identified by what was hanging from a long pole above it – if you want a pineapple, you just had to look for a pole with a pineapple on the end. Want bananas? Look for a pole with bananas on, and so on. Locals would sail up next to the big boats and latch on whilst they made their exchanges.

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Wholesale sales are the way its done at the floating markets.

There were also smaller ‘selling’ boats dotted around, which would come up alongside our boat and sell things such as fruit, hot coffee and cold drinks. After a cup of coffee and having cruised around most of the market, we stopped at a riverside restaurant for some Pho (rice noodle soup) – the perfect start to the day!

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Need a drink? Just look out for one of these smaller boats.

Next, we continued further upstream, away from the large market and along some of the canals and smaller tributaries which feed the Mekong. We eventually arrived at another, much smaller floating market, where the trading process was very similar to that of the large one. It was pouring with rain at this point however (thankfully our little boat had shelter), so it was interesting watching how the locals emerged from under huge tarpaulin sheets over their boats to trade in the rain. Here, we tucked into some freshly bought fruit and had another (much needed) coffee.

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Those hats are amazing; they keep you dry in the rain, and protect you from the sun in the heat.

We then continued to boat around the beautiful network of rivers in the area, making a stop to visit a family run rice noodle factory. We saw the complete (and lengthy) process as to how rice noodles were made. The amount of work that goes into making them is crazy, but it’s definitely worth it as they taste incredible and are absolutely essential in so many Vietnamese dishes!

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Production line at the rice-noodle factory.

The following day mum and dad flew up to Hoi An, where I was going to join them soon after. I didn’t want to fly, however, as I wanted to travel the entire length of the ‘reunification express’ train from HCMC to Hanoi whilst in Vietnam. So, I took another sleeper bus back to HCMC, and that night boarded the sleeper train to Da Nang, which is the closest train station to Hoi An, in the middle of Vietnam.

Whilst the scenery the train passed through was beautiful, I couldn’t really enjoy it to the max as I had the top bunk of three in a 6 bed ‘hard sleeper’ compartment – crammed in against the roof with so little room I couldn’t sit up or even turn around in my bed! This wouldn’t have been so bad, but matters were made worse as the air-conditioning in our compartment was dodgy. There was only a small flow of air, and being crammed against the roof, it missed my bunk entirely. As a result, I was stifling, but the bed was comfy enough and I did manage to sleep.

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Boarding the sleeper train to Da Nang.

Sadly in the morning I was pretty sick, probably from the awful food I had had the previous night, so I didn’t really get to enjoy the journey much then, either. It was a relief to reach Da Nang and transfer to the hotel to meet up with Mum & Dad again! Once I was feeling better the next few days were pure relaxation. The hotel was probably the nicest I’ve ever stayed in, and the town of Hoi An is absolutely beautiful too. We relaxed by the pool in the day, and wandered into town in the late afternoon once temperatures were cooler.

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Paradise?

Hoi An’s old town is made up of hundreds of old buildings and temples, and is all pedestrianised and lit with lanterns and lights, so it’s very nice at night. The food that we ate was brilliant everywhere, and we could easily have stayed a lot longer than 4 nights.

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The ancient Japanese Bridge in the centre of Hoi An Old Town.

The old streets are beautiful:

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And there’s even some ornate temples too:

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Hoi An is also famous for its Tailors – there’s a couple of hundred in the old town alone. With such cheap prices I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to have a suit made! So, in just 24 hours I had a dinner jacket, trousers and shirt all tailor made – it fits brilliantly and I’m really pleased with it. I actually went to the same tailor that the Top Gear cast used when they visited Hoi An as part of their Vietnam Special!

After switching off in Hoi An and indulging in great food and sunshine, we all took a train from Da Nang to Hue. It’s just a couple of hours journey but is easily one of the most scenic train journeys in the world – winding around the coastline next to empty beaches, through mountains and past rice fields. Sadly the weather was pretty grim, which was a huge shame, because the whole journey was really stunning.

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Despite the weather the journey was still easily the best train ride I’ve ever taken.

Hue is the former capital of Vietnam, although despite that it’s not a particularly big city. It is home to a massive walked citadel, which contains the ruins of the former ‘Imperial City’, which were heavily bombed and largely destroyed by the Americans during the Vietnam war.

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The imposing entrance to the Imperial City of Hue.

We visited the Imperial City the day after our train journey and it was a really fascinating place to walk round – huge, largely in ruins, but still a great insight into Vietnamese history. The entrances to the walled citadel are all striking, with the main gate the most impressive of them all – including a gate that only the emperor was ever allowed to use. Inside the Imperial Citadel we viewed the former throne room and meeting areas, as well as several other important buildings which had survived the war. There were also a couple of temples and pagodas dotted around which were nice to visit too, and provided welcome relief from the heat.

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Most of the Citadel lies in ruins.

Sadly, that was Mum & Dad’s last day with me, and they flew home the following day. I stayed in Hue a little longer, and hired a motorbike driver to take me on a tour of the surrounding area and countryside, which was renowned for being worth visiting. We made several stops at different tombs of the former emperors, such as Tu Duc’s tomb:

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All the tombs were set in their own huge grounds, with moats and water features along with beautiful structures. Nobody knows exactly where each body was buried at each tomb, which was intentional so that nobody would disturb the remains of each emperor. Rather gruesomely, the poor people that buried each emperor were beheaded as they were the only ones to know the whereabouts!

The scenery we passed on the tour was amazing, and riding pillion on a motorbike was a really exciting way to explore. The wind rushing past cooled me down and we took plenty of back roads and off-road paths which made the trip all the more interesting.

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Surreal scenery. This viewpoint was covered in old American bunkers from the war – it’s easy to see why.

In addition to the tombs, we also stopped off at a local village where I gave incense-making a crack, some bunkers left from the war, and a beautifully crafted ancient bridge in a local farming village. It was a great way to spend the day and a really nice end to my time in Hue.

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A monk takes a rest at one of Hue’s many Pagodas.

The following evening I boarded another overnight sleeper train – after my experience previously I’d upgraded to the ‘soft sleeper’ class which had only 4 beds per cabin! The difference was enormous, as I had far more room and the air-con actually worked! I had a brilliant nights sleep and a great ride into Hanoi, the capital – one of my favourite cities in the entire world.

Ho Chi Minh City

Following my week or so in Bangkok it was time to head onwards into Vietnam, via a short hour long flight from Nok Air. I chose to fly as a bus from Bangkok to Saigon would’ve taken at least 20 hours, and I would’ve had to pay $35 for a Cambodian visa just to pass through the country. So a flight for £40 or so was pretty good value, and I loved Nok Air as an airline – they upgraded me to an extra legroom seat free of charge (actually, every Asian airline has done that so far!), gave me a snack and free water on board, and had the best logo of any airline in existence. My flight departed Bangkok around 7am, and as I had to be at the airport by 5am (meaning leaving the hostel at 4am and waking up at 3am) I’d decided to pull an all-nighter, so I was shattered when I reached the airport. To wake myself up, I downed a couple of Carabao (the energy drink which sponsors Reading FC) – not bad!

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Until next time, Bangkok!

Unfortunately in my sleepy state I’d forgotten that I needed $25 in cash for my Vietnamese visa once I arrived in Saigon. Sadly, I realised this fact once I was past security, where conveniently there were no ATM’s, only money changers. Therefore I was stuck, with no way of getting the cash I needed for my visa. I explained my situation to the information desk staff, who were not interested, and told me I’d have to speak to Nok Air to see if I’d even be allowed to avoid board the flight!

Nok Air were pretty helpful to be fair to them – although the staff looked horrified when I told them and warned me there was a chance I wouldn’t be able to get the flight (as I wouldn’t be allowed into Vietnam). They asked around for me though to see if I’d be let back ‘out’ past security to go visit an ATM.

So I sat and waited. And then they came back with an answer: no. So, with just an hour until departure, I was pretty stuck. Luckily the carabao kicked in, and I remembered that I could get into Vietnam for 14 days without a visa anyway – but I needed one really as I planned to stay a lot longer. So, I begged, pleaded and pestered the Nok Air staff who eventually relented and organised an armed escort back ‘out’ through security to an ATM. Why I needed an armed guard to leave security I have no idea – but this is Thailand after all. Money in hand, I quickly exchanged it for some dollars, hurried back through security (the guard was a plus this time) and shuffled onto the plane. Upon landing I triumphantly handed over my hard-earned cash and received my elusive 1 month Vietnamese visa in return. Yay!

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Thanks Nok Air, bye Bangkok! Also, how amazing is their logo?

 

Once in my hostel (another cool hostel, with capsule dorm rooms that looked like they were out of a sci-fi film) and after a long sleep, I headed out for a wonder around Pham Ngu Lao. This area was the main backpacker/tourist spot in the city – a heaving, neon-lit collection of hostels, restaurants, Bia Hoi bars and street food stalls. The first thing I noted was how absolutely mental all of the streets were. Vietnam is a country where two wheels reign supreme, and it was evident in HCMC (the city of bikes) – motorbikes and mopeds were absolutely everywhere. In Vietnam, pedestrians have to wander down the side of the road, as the sidewalks are basically used for parking bikes and nothing else.

Crossing the road is a mission, too, as the bikes simply ignore all road rules. They go through red lights, pull out without looking, drive down the wrong side of the road and cruise around at night with no working lights. Naturally, they never stop to allow you to cross the road, and so the process basically involves waiting for the traffic to thin slightly, then walking out and dodging the bikes, which all drive around you. At first, it’s quite scary and feels very dangerous, but once you’ve done it a few times it becomes second nature.

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Roadside repairs.

During my first couple of days in the city I didn’t really get up to much, besides exploring District 1 by foot and taking in the impressive, but overpriced, Ben Thanh market, which sold everything and anything that you can buy in Vietnam. One thing Vietnam is famous for is its incredible street food, so I made sure to try Pho one morning (a delicious noodle soup, with beef and broth, that can be eaten at any time of the day, although the Vietnamese mainly eat it for breakfast). It was a challenge eating it with chopsticks and a spoon, but it was delicious nonetheless and the first of many bowls of Pho I consumed during my stay. I also tried Bahn Mi, which is basically a French baguette (an influence from when Vietnam was under the control of the French, pre 1950s) stuffed with pate, meat and shredded vegetables. Not only is the street food delicious, but it’s very cheap too! A bowl of Pho set me back about 40,000 dong (£1.30) whilst a Bahn Mi could be found for 15,000 (£0.50).

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Pham Ngu Lao, home to many backpackers and some amazing street food.

One place I did visit whilst on my own was the infamous Cu Chi Tunnels – a massive network of man made tunnels that the Vietcong soldiers dug during the Vietnam war. Vietcong soldiers would live in the tunnels and pop up through hidden trapdoors to gun down American and South-Vietnamese soldiers, who wouldn’t have a clue where the fire was coming from. The Vietcong also set some lethal booby traps, including pits filled with poisonous snakes or bamboo spikes that unfortunate enemy soldiers would fall into.

We even got the opportunity to crawl through a section of the tunnels which had been widened and made taller to accommodate westerners. Even so, it was a massive squeeze and incredible claustrophobic, with sections where I had to lie down and wriggle through. Yet the Vietcong used to run through tunnels 40% smaller with their full packs and weapons – it’s hard to get your head around! The tunnels were sweltering too, and the rest of the tour group and I were absolutely soaked in sweat by the time we emerged, following a 20minute crawl. We stopped off at a shooting range too, where a few people had a go at shooting AK-47s and MG4s. I gave it a miss as it was £15 for 10 bullets, however I was amazed by how LOUD and powerful the guns were – even with ear protection. It’s incredible that more soldiers aren’t deaf! The tunnels were a great little day trip and an eye opener as to the horrors of war and the lengths people will go to fight for what they believe in.

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One of the hidden trapdoors marking an entrance to the tunnels.

After a couple of days on my own, I headed to the airport to meet Mum & Dad who were flying out to meet me and travel around the southern half of Vietnam for almost two weeks. I told them I’d meet them at the hotel, then sneaked up behind them at the airport and surprised them – I got them good! It was amazing to be reunited and see them again after almost 6 months away – such a great feeling! Besides the chance to properly catch up and see Mum & Dad, the two weeks they were there also meant I upgraded from chaotic 16 bed hostel dorm rooms to nice hotels – a very welcome change which meant I could relax and feel like I was on holiday again!

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Spying on mum & dad collecting their luggage…

After talking for hours over a delicious lunch at our amazing library style hotel, and flicking through some photos, we headed out for a walk into the city. The noise, traffic and business of the city definitely surprised Mum and Dad, but not in a bad way. The following day we checked out the war museum, which was an interesting but harrowing exhibition on the Vietnam war, from the mid 1950s to the mid 1970s. The war was fought between the communist north of the country, and the south, which was backed by the US. Although the museum was heavily biased (only reporting the American war crimes, for example), it was brilliant and I came away horrified by what the war did to the country and how the effects are still being felt today. There’s also a great collection of jets, tanks and trucks from both sides. It’s definitely worth a visit when in Saigon!

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Afterwards, we moved on to a happier affair by going to watch the AO show at the Saigon opera house – a fantastic example of the French colonial architecture that pops up in the city in a throwback to the French controlled period in Vietnams history. The show was great too – a little bizarre, but overall a brilliant celebration of Vietnamese culture through gymnastic, dance and music.

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The cast.

Before bed we stopped off at an incredible cafe called Tram Cafe, which was hidden away down a side street. Upon entering we emerged into a huge garden oasis, with treehouse style buildings and waterfalls and ponds throughout. Vietnam, and Saigon in particular, has a massive coffee culture and all of the cities have a selection of great boutique cafes. Tram Cafe was a cut above the rest, though, and the smoothies we had were delicious!

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An oasis in the city.

The following day we caught a bus down to the riverside city of Can Tho, located in the heart of the Mekond delta region. We were ripped off a little when buying the bus tickets, but the bus was very comfy – a true Asian sleeper bus with wifi and bed-style seats. It was only a 4 hour journey but the countryside we passed through was beautiful and we all slept well! Look out for the next update to hear about what we got up to there….

As a note – I’m now back in Bangkok and fly home in a few days. My blog is pretty far behind so I’ll be smashing out the entries over this next week. It’s been an incredible 7 months, and although I can’t wait to see you all once I’m back, I wish I could keep going for another 7. See you soon!

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Back in Bangkok (at a rooftop pool). I love this city!

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*I’m pretty far behind on my blog now as I’m literally just about to leave Vietnam – so this update is about a month behind. I’ve just not had time to catch up as the last month or so has been an absolute non-stop rollercoaster of fun! I fly home in under 3 weeks now (or possibly sooner if my money runs out) so I’m going to try and catch up in that time. Thanks for all the support!*

Bangkok is a brilliant city, one that defied all the expectations I had of it. A few of the travellers that I have met so far don’t like it – and not do many travel guides – so the expectations that I had built up were of a grimy, unfriendly, polluted city with little to see or do. The reality was on the polar opposite end of the spectrum – Bangkok is vibrant, colourful and energetic; a mish-mash of sights, cuisines and culture.

Tom and I flew up after an amazing few days on the Phi Phi islands in the south of Thailand. One of our old school friends, Guy, is now living in Bangkok so we were both looking forward to catching up with him (Guy, if you’re reading this, it was awesome to see you and it’ll be good to catch up again in a few weeks!). After checking into our hostel (a really cool place called The Cube, see picture), we headed out to meet up with Guy for a drink. We had a few years to catch up on but it was really cool to see each other again. Luckily, Guy had free evenings for the rest of the week so we made plans to meet up again!

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4 ‘cubes’ in our dorm.

One of the main sights in Bangkok is the abundance of temples that line the Chao Phraya River, including the world famous Grand Palace complex. This is where Tom and I headed on our first day – taking a river ferry for about 20 mins upstream to reach the area. The boat ride was great – there’s rarely a better way to see a city than from a river running through the heart of it – and it was interesting seeing how some people were living, illegally no doubt, on the river banks. Once we reached the Grand Palace complex, we rewarded ourselves for our hard work (a 5 stop journey on the Skytrain and a boat ride) by taking a well-deserved lunchbreak. Refreshed, we headed into the Grand Palace complex where we were charged an exorbitant £15 entry fee and had to wear some ridiculously baggy tracksuit bottoms, as shorts were not allowed. On the bright side, they were very pickpocket-proof!

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Temples galore.

For the next couple of hours, we wondered around the spectacular Buddhist temples, explored the grounds of some of the most important buildings in Thailand, and checked out the Grand Palace itself. Whilst we had very little info available to us on the day (we hadn’t paid extra for a tour guide or an information book) we still made good use of our time there and found out lots about the complex.

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Ornate and elaborate temples are everywhere at the Grand Palace complex.

One of the best temples we saw was the Temple of the Emerald Buddah – Wat Phra Kaew – which is arguably the most important temple in Thailand. The main attraction, however, was not the 14th century Emerald Buddah inside, but instead the astonishing architecture and intricate detail feature on each and every temple – showcasing the best of Thai craftsmanship. Sadly, you can’t actually enter the majority of the buildings and temples (including the grand palace itself), but I am sure the interiors are nowhere near as spectacular as the outsides.

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The spectacular Grand Palace.

One building we did enter housed an interesting collection of weaponry used by the Grand Palace guards over the years – including the smallest pistol I’ve ever seen. Sadly there’s little sense of scale in the photo below, but to give you an idea, the bullets it used wouldn’t have looked out of place if used as lead in a pencil. How they expect to do any damage with it, I don’t know!

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Honestly, it was so small it looked like if you were shot in the head the bullet would simply bounce off.

After seeing the Grand Palace and all it had to offer, our next stop was another famous temple complex – Wat Pho, located just South of the Grand Palace walls. The main attraction at Wat Pho is the amazing ‘Temple of the Reclining Buddah’, which houses a 46m long gold-leaf-covered Buddah statue. And yes, it is reclining. There are many other Buddhist temples at Wat Pho, which were again great to see, with their elaborate designs. After spending a couple of hours there, we were feeling a bit ‘templed out’ so wandered into Chinatown for a look round.

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The huge reclining Buddha of Wat Pho

No different to any other Asian Chinatown really; jam packed streets, markets selling everything and anything, street bars and cafes and a crazy amount of people, animals, motorbikes and carts. From Chinatown, we decided to be lazy and take a taxi back to our hostel (they’re so cheap!). Thankfully our decision was immediately vindicated, as as soon as we set off the heavens opened in an absolutely torrential storm. We felt smug about staying dry, but our joy was short lived as we still got drenched in the 5s dash from the taxi to the hostel front door!

The next few days were great. Tom and I spent time exploring the city in the day, and then we’d meet up with Guy for drinks or food in the evening. We visited a crazy 7-floor shopping mall called ‘Terminal 21’ themed as an airport, in which every floor was themed after a different country:

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The ‘Murica floor.

Chatachuk weekend market, one of the biggest markets in Southeast Asia, where there is an amazing array of craft goods and all sorts of stuff is sold:

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One of the stalls at Chatachuk Market. (Not my photo).

The Red Cross Snake Farm, which was brilliant. It’s essentially a ‘snake zoo’, home to many of the venomous and non-venomous snakes that live in Thailand, including King Cobra’s, Pit-Vipers and Rat Snakes. There was also a brilliant display in which they took some of the snakes out and talked about them – even just looking on made you jumpy when the speaker was standing about a foot away from a king cobra that was repeatedly trying to strike him. Another snake handler just happily picked up one of the Cobras with his bare hands too, as if it were just a friendly pet. Here’s a couple of pictures from the farm:

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Yeah, that’s a massive King Cobra. Yeah, it was angry.

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Pretty sure this was a pit-viper, which are apparently found everywhere in the trees of S-E Asia. 

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TWO King Cobras? Out in the open? Pretty crazy.

On Tom’s last night in Thailand, he very generously booked us a crazy, crazy two bedroom suite overlooking the river and city. It was more like a luxury apartment than any kind of hotel room, and it was such a treat to stay in a luxury hotel and enjoy a swimming pool, buffet breakfast etc. That night we got guy over, got some pizza delivered to the room and just chilled out watching the football on TV and taking in the amazing view over the city at night. It was an awesome way to round off what had been a great week catching up with both Tom and Guy.

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The insane view from our Suite.

Tom flew out the next day, and I checked out of the hotel with one minute to spare (I wanted to take advantage of everything the suite offered, including the massive bathtub), and headed back to a hostel. I had another 3 days and 4 nights in the city, during which I decided to plan the next stages of my trip, sort out and back up my photos, send off some emails, figure out the best way to transfer my Australian dollars into my UK account and just generally catch up on things that needed doing.

I wanted to save money, so I didn’t really do much – but I spent a lot of time wandering around the city just absorbing the chaos of daily life there, with my camera in one hand and some street food in the other. I tried out a few new photography tricks (I’m improving, very slowly – but it’s so satisfying when a shot comes out the way you want it to). I met some great people at my hostel, played pool, tried out new bars, watched the Euro’s (of course) and ate three meals a day at three different restaurants each day.

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Rush hour on Sukhumvit Road.

I think it was those few days of just ‘being’ in Bangkok that really made me like the city. It’s up there with Kuala Lumpur for my favourite city so far (in fact, it probably just pips KL into first) and I can’t wait to get back, meet up with Guy again and spend another week there next month!

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