Mini Travel Blog: Vietnam

According to this article, researchers have found that time seems to have passed more quickly when we have had fewer new experiences. This explains why many feel that time passes faster as they grow older. It also explains why doing a lot of different things on holiday can make the holiday feel longer.

I love a beach break as much as the next person, but they always seem to fly by in an instant, and if the time theory is correct, it’s the lack of new stimuli that is responsible. The best way to get the most out of a short trip to far away climes is, therefore, to break it into several distinct chunks.

With this in mind, when booking our short (9 day) holiday to Vietnam we decided to split the trip into three equal parts: 3 days in the city of Ho Chi Minh, 3 in Phong Nha, near Vietnam’s famous cave systems in the Phong Nha Ke Bang national park, and 3 in the charming French colonial seaside town of Hoi An.

The trip came about thanks to an invitation to our good friends’ wedding in Ho Chi Minh, so we had the added excitement of seeing a traditional Vietnamese wedding as well as having the rare opportunity to holiday somewhere so far away from home with a big group of friends.

We landed in Ho Chi Minh on Friday evening, just in time to meet the group for a beer at the Secret Garden rooftop restaurant.

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Beers at the Secret Garden rooftop restaurant on our first night.

After a comfortable night’s sleep at the charming Silverland Jolie Hotel & Spa we were up early for the main event, the first part of which was held at the bride’s family residence on the outskirts of town. Family and friends piled into the living room for the ceremony, for which the bride’s family had generously arranged a translator to enable the British contingent to keep up with all that was going on. Some of our friends were part of the bridal party and wore stunning traditional handmade gowns.

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The boys (and my husband!) in their traditional bridal party outfits.

After the ceremony we all headed to a restaurant where we were treated to a delicious spread of traditional food. Then there was a break of a couple of hours after which we gathered again, this time with many additional members of the bride’s family and friendship circle (I think we numbered around 400 in total!), for a stunning evening celebration at the Sheraton Hotel, during which there were speeches and much eating, drinking (Vietnamese men are, it turns out, very fond of drinking their beers in one go, much to the delight of the male members of the British contingent) and laughter.

The bride, it must be said, looked absolutely stunning in the two outfits she wore during the day-firstly a traditional Vietnamese wedding outfit and then a more western style white dress later on. And the groom looked dashing in his traditional Vietnamese outfit.

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Part one of the ceremony, with the bride and groom in traditional dress.

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The bride and groom entering the room for the evening party.

Around 10pm the formal part of the celebrations concluded and most of the bride’s guests began to dissipate. True to form the Brits partied into the night, at the rooftop bar at the Sheraton and, later, a rather spurious club called Apocalypse Now, but the less said about that part of the evening the better…

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Me and Jessie getting into the party spirit.

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The boys downing beers (again).

The following evening, after a lazy afternoon and delicious lunch at Propaganda, the bride’s father treated us to a meal onboard a boat, giving us the chance to see Ho Chi Minh from the water, and experience some traditional singing and dancing. It was nice to do something a little more intimate with the family (although we still must have numbered almost 40!), and was a really enjoyable evening.

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View from the boat on our evening trip, courtesy of the bride’s father.

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More beers at the boat party, as if there hadn’t been enough the night before!

Afterwards we went for a rooftop cocktail at the swanky (if extortionately priced) Glow Sky Bar, before literally stumbling across an incredible live music night that felt exactly how I imagine stepping into an intimate gig in a house in New Orleans would feel. Not what you expect on a night out in Ho Chi Minh, but the city is full of such surprises.

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Rooftop bar action at Glow.

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The local jazz and blues gig we stumbled across – the pic doesn’t do it justice, it was great!

Overall the weekend was a fantastic start to our trip: CONGRATULATIONS Tom and Lily, and thank you so much for sharing your special day with us and for your generosity.

On Monday morning we left the city at 8am and headed for the airport with three friends, to catch the 10.15 flight to Dong Hoi, from where I had arranged a transfer to our place of residence for the next three nights, the Phong Nha Farmstay. Situated just a few kilometres from the Phong Nha Ke Bang national park – home to the biggest cave in the world, as well as many other spectacular cave systems – it was the perfect base from which to explore. Listed in the new Lonely Planet guide book as “the place that put Phong Nha on the map,” we soon understood why. The Australian owner, Ben, is something of a local entrepreneur. He set the place up with his Vietnamese wife and it is really something, a backpacker’s paradise complete with outdoor pool, pool table, hammocks and near-nightly entertainment (we watched 3/4 of Heaven on Earth on the outdoor projector screen on the second night, lying on sun loungers underneath the stars, before rain brought it to an abrupt end – damn rainy season! – and on the last night a fabulous Philippino band had us singing along to covers of Hanson and the Spice Girls!). Looking out over the rice paddies the Farmstay offers free cycle hire (tip: no matter how appealing the tandems may look, don’t do it! The terrain in the area can get rough in places and they are a nightmare off road!) and has 16 comfortable rooms. They can also book you onto excellent tours of the national park (ask for Victor as a guide – he’s great!) and will happily help with onward travel.

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Hubby at the Phong Nha Farmstay

On our first afternoon we took two tandem bikes (see above comment!) and one normal bike (never have I been so grateful for this decision) and went exploring. It’s clear over the coming months and years this place is going to skyrocket in popularity, so it was a treat to spend time in a relatively undeveloped part of the country. That said, the fact it is still developing means some things, like the signposts and rudimentary map we were provided by the farmstay, aren’t always entirely accurate, and we found ourselves very lost after missing a turning whilst looking for the amusingly named ‘Pub with cold beer’. Our detour took us knee deep through a river, aided by local children, and up some tricky steep inclines, but perseverence saw us reaching our goal in the end! On the way back the heavens opened and it bucketed down, providing us with our first experience of Vietnam’s rainy season.

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The fateful tandem bikes.

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Getting lost in search of cold beer and wading through a river, as one does…

Day two was our National Park Tour. At this time of year, due to the unpredictability of the weather, many of the longer tours are cancelled, so we had to make do with a one day tour. As it turned out it was fantastic. Our guide, Victor, was hilarious and well informed, and we really enjoyed the itinerary of the 8 Ladies’ Cave and temple followed by the Paradise Cave and Dark Cave. We had lunch at the restaurant near the Dark Cave before getting into safety gear and ziplining down to the base of the cave. After walking for ten minutes or so into the cave we arrived at the famous mud pool where you float on the mud like the Dead Sea – a very interesting experience!

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The stunning Paradise Cave

On our last day in Phong Nha we hired scooters and, despite the onset of heavy rain, had an enormously fun (and less physically challenging!) day exploring the local area. The rain even worked in our favour as it drove us into an as yet unopened homestay a few kilometres from ours, which was picture postcard beautiful with a swimming pool framed by a jagged mountain backdrop and wonderfully welcoming staff. The female chef in particular was overwhelmed with excitement to see us and the whole staff and family couldn’t do enough for us, rushing to set up chairs and tables, turning on the music and showing us around. The owner, who we called ‘Big Boss’, brought out his best whisky and invited us to drink with him (we only had one despite his protestations otherwise, we were in charged of vehicles after all!). It was a really special experience, one of those life affirming moments that makes travelling so worthwhile. Afterwards we stopped off in town for a drink at the Tiger Tiger hostel, which was full of young backpackers and fun, but made me glad we had chosen to stay out of the town.

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Scooting around in the rain.

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The stunning view from the soon to be opened homestay where we sheltered from the rain.

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Chilling with Big Boss (centre) and the fam.

The next day we woke up to see the paddy fields flooded by rain, and heard reports of all cave tours being cancelled and the city of Hue – which I visited on my last trip to Vietnam 9 years ago – submerged beneath half a metre of water. We felt lucky to have missed the worst of it and to have seen the caves, as many would have travelled all that way and been disappointed. We headed for Dong Hoi where we boarded a train south to Danang (a pleasant 5 hour journey with some nice views, or at least there would have been were it not for the driving rain), and from there jumped in a taxi to travel the 45 minutes to Hoi An.

Hoi An was much more developed than I remembered from my last trip almost a decade ago, but nonetheless managed to retain its colonial charm. What I love most about it is that it really has it all: it is a foodie haven, has fantastic tailors for reasonably priced clothes, some lovely artisanal shops, fun bars and a lovely beach. It was the perfect final destination for our trip.

We stayed at the Hoang Trinh guesthouse, a traditionally decorated place with the most charming staff I think I have ever come across. Our room was clean and relatively spacious, although its situation directly beside a nursery school meant early morning wake ups! The breakfast was a delight-fresh fruit, rice and vegetables, croissants, bread and jam, creme caramel…whatever you wanted you could have. We quickly learned that when you emptied a plate it would immediately be refilled, so it was best to leave it just short of empty!

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Hoi An at dusk.

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The boys on the balcony of the Hoang Trinh guesthouse.

Three of the best restaurants we ate at were the The Little Menu – which also runs cookery courses that three of our group did and said were fantastic – whose Hoi An duck spring rolls were to die for, the Nu Eatery – which does the BEST (and this really can’t be understated) bbq pork buns I have ever tasted (see pic below) – and Morning Glory. We also found, on the recommendation of a friend, a place called Banh Mi Phuong near to the tailor shop we went to which did delicious Banh Mi pork rolls served in baguettes. Definitely worth seeking out. And on the last night we stumbled out of the rain into a fabulous grill restaurant where we had a smorgasbord of barbecued meats and traditional delicacies; the perfect way to round off our culinary food tour.

I had only intended to buy one or two items of clothing from the tailors but the staff at BeBe Tailors wear so good and the quality of service so high that I went crazy and ordered two dresses, two pairs of trousers and a skirt, and R ordered a suit and three shirts! We didn’t regret our decision though, they are all fantastic and half the price similar quality clothes would be on the high street.

Finally, a nod to Hoi An’s beach and night life. The former, An Bang beach, is a great place to spend a couple of days topping up the tan (something my bright red skin is currently not thanking me for). It has a lot of sun beds and umbrellas that you can either hire or use for free provided you order food and drinks from the associated restaurant. At the far end of the main beach on the left is a particularly pleasant restaurant set in a garden just behind the beach; the perfect place to retreat to for a coconut when the sun gets too hot.

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An Bang beach.

As for the night life, there isn’t a huge amount to speak of as, although they are fun, most of the bars in the old town close by midnight. On the opposite side of the river is a strip of tourist bars with ridiculous names like ‘The Mr Bean Bar’ which attract young crowds with promises of free cocktails and laughing gas balloons. While fun they do seem at odds with the general ambiance of Hoi An, and a particular contrast to the peace and tranquillity further down the waterfront where old women offer short boat trips along the river in the dark to set afloat wish candles. But as with every popular tourist attraction, such dichotomies of culture will occur, and as tacky as the late night bars are, they do at least boost the economy of this thriving town.

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Beautiful Hoi An by night, with wish lanterns floating in the river.

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The spuriously named Mr Bean Bar.

And so that brings to a close the account of our whistlestop tour of Vietnam, which I left loving even more than before. The people are so friendly and welcoming and the landscape just idyllic. I only wish we had more time to explore it. But something tells me that we will be back.

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Old Friends

There’s nothing so wonderful as a wedding that also doubles up as a mass reunion of old friends. Last night was one such occasion, bringing all the friends from my Birmingham Uni days together under one roof for a good old fashioned knees up. And what a night it was. It’s been years since we were last all in the same place at the same time and we made the most of every second, reliving the silly dances of our youth and reminiscing about the fun times we all shared.

Life moves so fast and is so busy that it’s not always possible to see old friends as much as we might like. But, in my case at least, on those increasingly rare occasions when we do all get together the old magic is still there, and that’s such a lovely thing to behold and to experience.

I realised last night what an integral part of my life all those people have been and how much I love and value them. It was also heartwarming to see how happy and comfortable in their own skin everyone is now; Lord knows we’ve all been through our fair share of ups and downs over the thirteen years we’ve known one another but now it really feels we’ve come out of the other side and are all relatively settled.

But the biggest accolade of all must go to the stunning bride, Rebecca (whose Temperley wedding gown was the very definition of elegance) and her handsome groom, Paul, without whose hospitality we would not all have had the opportunity to come together in the first place. Great night guys, a thousand thank yous and enjoy married life xxxx
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Emma & Harry’s wedding: The aftermath

Needless to say the rest of yesterday’s wedding festivities were a rip roaring success, though they led to a fair few sore heads this morning. Fortunately for those of us staying at Cameron House Hotel the spa facilities were on hand to soothe the pain, and after a sauna and jacuzzi things began to look up.

The bride and groom had organised a barbecue at the rugby club in Helensburgh for those wedding guests who didn’t have to shoot off, and the turn out was predictably good. We had a fun afternoon going over the previous day’s antics and continuing the celebrations before people gradually began to drift off to the airport and train station and make their long journeys home.

Fortunately for us we’d had the foresight to book an extra night in Helensburgh so have had a leisurely evening stroll to the Wee Kelpy fish and chip shop and are now back to veg out and watch the Shawshank Redemption before bed. We may be in a Travelodge but it’s possibly the best appointed one I’ve ever stayed in, looking right out over the sea and the wild Scottish landscape. Right now I feel a million miles away from city living and (residual headache aside) I have to say it feels fantastic.