La Bella Venezia

Yesterday we returned from a week in Venice. Yes, that’s right, a full week in the place most people visit for two or three days at most, pausing only long enough to tick off the main sites (Rialto, St. Mark’s Square) and do the main tourist attractions (gondola ride, selfie in front of the Bridge of Sighs). But if you take the time to spend longer than the average tourist in this amazing place, you will really reap the benefits.

Besides being beautiful, with its labyrinth of canals, colourful buildings, lively squares and narrow passageways, Venice is steeped in history. One only has to stick their head into the stunning Frari Church or Scuolo Grande di San Rocco to get a flavour of what the city has to offer. And it doesn’t stop there. The different areas all have their own unique charm, from San Polo (where we rented a lovely Airbnb property and found a gorgeous sandwich shop/bar which we frequented for a beer and glass of Prosecco most evenings) to Castello (where we returned to a wonderful restaurant near to the famous Arsenale – former ship yard and armoury – where we dined on our honeymoon last year) to the Jewish Ghetto and Giudecca, which both have a completely different, but no less charming, vibe compared to the other parts of the city.

This year, the Venice Biennale festival includes modern art, with a huge display of artworks to explore in both the Arsenale and Giardini. A two day ticket costs only 25 Euros, which is well worth the money. There are also a huge number of other galleries and exhibitions (both permanent and temporary, to coincide with the Biennale) running across the city, including new exhibitions by Damien Hirst and David Hockney (neither of which we saw, sadly, as we ran out of time).

And then there is the beach. On my previous two trips to Venice, both less than three days in duration, I didn’t make it as far as the Lido. But with a few days more we were able to hop on the Vaporetto (water bus) and make the half hour journey on two occasions. It’s not the best beach in the world, and it is very busy during the summer, but there are still plenty of sun beds and umbrellas available to rent and it offers respite from the searing heat and busy streets in the city, when sightseeing gets too much.

I need not linger on the food (it goes without saying Italian food is divine); suffice to say if seafood and ice cream are your bag, you will not be disappointed in Venice. I’m pretty sure I’ve come back at least half a stone heavier, but I don’t regret a moment of it!

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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.

Carry on Camping

My first experience of camping was Glastonbury 2005. Fresh faced and only twenty three, I arrived with a bright pink two man tent (for two people! What was I thinking?! Total novice) and solar powered shower, feeling so upbeat I could have taken on the world. Five hours later, lightning lit the artificial sky above my head in violent, neon pink, screams rang out across the field below, and the constant dripping on my forehead had me contemplating the efficacy of Chinese water torture. It was, in short, horrific, and the sight of toppled porta-loos and police divers searching for shocked campers’ passports in a soupy sea of mud the next morning did little to bolster my spirits. Nor the sheer effort of walking more than ten paces, the gloopy mud clamping my wellies in its vice-like grip with every step, making extrication an almost superhuman feat. Still, at least I was in a better position than another member of our party, who, on waking in the night to find his tent filling with water, grabbed his pen knife and proceeded to cut his way out of his tent (an inadvisable act when you are to spend the next four nights sleeping in aforementioned tent, and the weather forecast shows no immediate sign of improvement).

You’d think, on the basis of that experience, that I would never have attempted camping again. But despite the harsh conditions, that weekend spawned a love affair with festivals that has spanned more than a decade hence. And since I’ve hitherto not had the funds to upgrade to a gold-plated yurt complete with midget butler (or whatever else it is the cool kids do these days in their VIP areas), the humble tent and backpack combo has been used time and again – though always as an enabler, rather than a leisure pursuit in its own right.

So you can imagine my surprise at having ACTUALLY ENJOYED my first experience of CAMPING JUST FOR FUN, the recent spell of glorious summer weather having lured us at the weekend to a campsite in the Vresse-sur-Semois region of the Belgian Ardennes. Granted, there were a LOT of static homes and caravans where we stayed (our little tent stood out like a sore thumb), and we were woefully underprepared compared to some of the seasoned pros there (reversing our car to the barbecue so we could sit in the boot whilst eating, because we hadn’t brought any chairs), but overall my first time at a camp site was very positive. It had drinking water, clean toilet and shower blocks, and even a bar (God love those boozy Belgians-like home away from home). All that, and our pitch was located right beside the river, which was lovely.

After pitching our tent on Saturday we walked the kilometer into Bohan, passing a broken bridge that told of how the region suffered in WWII (the whole area felt steeped in history, which was fascinating). After failing to procure the bicycles our campsite host had tried to organise for us through a local vendor, we opted for an eleven kilometer hike through the forest, which was beautiful and challenging in equal measure – the main challenge being the near-constant horse fly attacks along the route. Three hours after we set off, we arrived back at the campsite, dirty and tired but exhilarated, and ready to prepare our barbeque supper and have a drink in the bar before bed.

On Sunday we woke surprisingly late, thanks to my sensible suggestion of positioning the tent in an area that would be shaded from the morning sun. We showered, packed up, bade our neighbours goodbye, and drove the four kilometres to Vresse, from where we hired a two person kayak. This was by far my favourite part of the weekend. Horseflies aside (those little bastards), we spent a very pleasant couple of hours cruising along the river, culminating in a palpitation-inducing accidental rapid navigation, after we failed to spot the signs and went the wrong way down a river channel (filmed by several amused looking tourists).

By the time we arrived back in Brussels, two hours after we set off, we were exhausted but revitalised. Despite only being away for one night it felt like a holiday, and made us realise how much we need weekends like that in our life, to rebalance the relative stresses of work and socialising. Sometimes there is nothing like switching off your smartphone, taking off your watch and getting amongst nature. It makes you feel alive, reminds you what life’s all about and, above all else, shows you can have adventure anywhere, if you just seek it out.

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P.M.A*

In recent weeks I’ve felt my old nemesis stress creep up on me. This was, in part, why I took the decision to have a week’s ‘staycation’ last week. And, as I sit here on the eve of returning to work, I have to say it’s done wonders. Not only have I achieved lots of my writing goals – the other reason for my taking some time off – I have also created some much-needed thinking and breathing space. It’s frightening how hemmed in you can feel by life if you don’t do that from time to time, and as someone whose standard response is to run away when the going gets tough – usually by going off travelling every three years or so, when the daily commute gets so much I feel murderous – I’ve been delighted to realise that the mental peace and clarity I’ve been searching for aren’t always that far afield.

I’m writing this post because I want to hang on to this feeling of positivity, and to be able to refer back to it when I inevitably have moments of sinking back below the mire. I’ve also just been leafing through a little book called ‘Carpe Diem-Make the Most of Life,’ which was lent to me by a good friend and which is full of uplifting and inspiring quotes. Despite being a pessimist by nature, in moments like this I realise how wonderful life is, and what a monumental waste of time it is to be negative. As the page in the photo rightly says, ‘You are the hero of your own story.’ And nobody likes a negative hero, right?

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*Positive Mental Attitude

Hong Kong: Day One

After an eleven hour flight, only three of which we actually managed to sleep (and even then only fitfully), we touched down in Hong Kong at 2pm this afternoon. One train and an expertly blagged free bus later we were standing outside our guest house on the 13th floor of the infamous Chung King Mansions hammering on the door and staring forlornly through it at the empty reception desk. Fortunately it was only a few minutes (and a passing cockroach) later that someone appeared to let us in. Somewhat less fortunately we were then asked to pay the  balance in full for our two night stay (£100), despite me having thought I’d done this months ago through the booking website. Unable to get online to verify this (great idea Tesco banking for refusing to let customers log on from abroad unless they confirm a text message you’ve sent them – however Three, as I’ve discovered today to my chagrin, don’t automatically set new customers up with data roaming when abroad. How then, pray tell, am I meant to confirm a text and log on if I don’t have phone reception to receive it?) we reluctantly handed over the cash before being led to our cell-like “double” room.

The trauma of the room behind us we attempted to shake off our tiredness and go out-a plan made somewhat trickier by the horrendous backache that’s crept up on me over the past few days and is now not only fully fledged but also, it would seem, here to stay (bodes well for the days of trekking ahead…). It took all of my strength to get out of the guest house but happily once we were out things improved immeasurably.

We’ve spent this evening wandering around the night market, sampling lots of yummy street food and taking a promenade along (culminating in a night cap overlooking) Hong Kong’s stunning harbour. I’m still in pain with this stupid back ailment but we are at least firmly back on track with the holiday enjoyment, which is very much the most important thing. Next stop New Year’s Eve and I cannot wait!

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See you on the Other Side….

After months of waiting I can hardly believe today is finally here. In ten minutes we will be setting off for the airport to catch our flight to Hong Kong where we will be seeing in the New Year. Then, on January 1st we will be flying to Manila to begin a twelve day adventure that will take in the mountainous regions of Northern Luzon, the famous world heritage Cordillera rice terraces and Cebu in the Visayan islands, where we will be diving with whale sharks and thresher sharks as well as doing our bit to help with the typhoon relief effort on Malapascua island.

It’s been a long time coming and has taken a huge amount of planning, so it’s an amazing feeling to finally be ready to embark on the journey. Though this will no doubt surprise many people who know me to be a social media addict, I’m actually looking forward to two weeks ‘off the grid’ (which will stand me in excellent stead for my 26.2 day sponsored social media silence in February, in aid of my Rome marathon effort in March – training for which will be firmly on the back burner for the next two weeks, but will be resumed in earnest upon my return).

I will, of course, fulfil my final two posts of this year’s Belle 365 daily blogging challenge before heading off into the wilderness, so will have a chance to wish you all a Happy New Year once we have touched down in Hong Kong. Which means all there is to say for now is ‘see you on the other side’!

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Eyes on the Prize

Aside

No writing has been achieved today, which isn’t ideal given that there are only three days left of NaNowrimo (two in which I will be able to write) and I’ve got a whopping 8,000 words to get down if I’m to chalk up another win. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I work best under pressure, so I’m just going to have to have faith in myself and hope that a couple of late night scribing sessions will be enough to see me through.

The truth is I’m shattered. Last night wasn’t the best night’s sleep as the wanderer had returned and was up to his usual nocturnal activities (not that i’m complaining as I love having him home – but, on that note, if anyone knows of any tips to help restless sleepers they’d be gratefully received). I can’t blame my tiredness entirely on my boyfriend’s return, however – I think it’s fair to say the relentless cycle of training and organising is finally beginning to take its toll.

Fortunately, however, I’ve only got thirteen more days of work before almost a month of holiday, so now it’s all about the countdown-I just have to keep spinning those plates for another few weeks and then I can relax. As far as a constantly on the move trip to a part of the world that’s recently been devastated by a natural disaster can be called ‘relaxing,’ that is…..