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.

A Bridget Jones Post

Talk about going from yin to yang in one weekend. Whereas Friday saw me leaving my coat and house keys in an unknown location in Clapham at 4am after an impromptu night out with friends, Sunday has seen me complete an 11 mile run (in a very respectable hour and forty eight minutes I’ll have you know – if I run at that speed for the whole marathon I’ll complete it in under my target time of four and a half hours. Though I’ll admit that is a BIG IF), make some headway with planning the marathon fundraiser in February and cook a lasagne. Tomorrow needs to be more productive still if I’m to catch up with myself before going on holiday two weeks today (whoopee!), although annoyingly I now have ‘buy new coat’ and ‘get new set of house keys cut’ as unwelcome additional items on the to do list.

On another note entirely, when I started this blog on the first of January I wasn’t sure I would be able to fulfil the commitment to post something every day. Now, as I sit here writing the post for December 15th I can hardly believe there are only 16 posts left to write before the end of the year. What I’ll do beyond that I haven’t yet decided, but whilst it’s unlikely I’ll continue posting every single day, I’ll definitely continue to keep a regular blog. The ‘Bridget Jones’ posts (as my Dad not-so-affectionately refers to them – and, given this weekend’s antics and posts that description’s not all that wide of the mark…) are always cathartic to write, the fiction posts entirely different and yet arguably more important where the future direction of my writing is concerned. In February I plan to dig out this year’s NaNo novel, dust it off and start the ‘real’ work of editing. Because, I’ve decided: 2014 is going to be my year. And, like Bridget, I won’t let anything or anyone stand in my way.

The Jacket

The jacket sits on the fence, listless and forgotten. Creepers stretch tendrils towards the imposter in their midst, testing its legitimacy, waging a war of attrition that it cannot hope to win. The snow is thick now, almost a foot deep in places. The jacket has its own jacket of snow, white on red like Santa’s suit. How many sunsets has it seen? How many frosts has it endured? So many questions left unanswered by the perpetrator of its demise. From time to time a passer by will stop, their eyes alighting on the arm that hangs limply from the fence post like a rag, or a fallen soldier on the edge of the battlefield. They will look around, frown and move on, it being quite apparent that the jacket’s owner has done the same.

What they don’t know is he hasn’t. He lies there too, beneath the foot of snow, his frozen hands clasped tightly as if in prayer. He was drunk, of course (at this time of year they always are), on his way home from the Christmas party. When they find him several days from now they’ll all be baffled as to why he removed his jacket when it was so very cold. In truth he would be just as baffled had he lived to tell the tale, for there was no logic to his whisky-addled thinking. And now there is no thinking at all.

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From Warehouse Project to Takeaway Project…

So, plans since yesterday’s post have changed somewhat considerably. Why? Because, thanks to the lurgy that’s been sweeping the office for the past few weeks, I’m feeling far too rough to make the journey to Manchester for an all-night clubbing extravaganza. This is very disappointing, not least because in cancelling I’ve lost somewhere in the region of £70, but also because the Warehouse Project is something I have wanted to attend since I first heard about it many years ago. I feel instinctively and with a heavy heart that particular ship has now sailed, but in life I guess you win some and you lose some, and as I win far more often than I lose I can’t complain. Still, it rankles that I’ve had to pull out and, in doing so, have turned my reputation on its head from party trooper to party pooper in one fell swoop.

On the plus side I no longer have to concern myself with running out of steam at 2am and spending three hours counting down the minutes to my return train. I have also just ordered an obscene amount of Chinese takeaway and bought a consolatory bottle of Beaujolais, so things could be infinitely worse…

Sensible / Silly Season

Loathe as I am to admit this, it seems that (perhaps unsurprisingly) my productivity levels sky rocket when I a) go to bed before 11pm and b) go to the gym before work. Today was quite simply exceptional; I ploughed through my work and personal to do lists, completing tasks I had been putting off because I hadn’t previously managed to find the energy to deal with them. I then came home and spent two and a half hours cleaning and tidying the flat from top to bottom before putting up the Christmas tree (fiddly decorations and all) and cooking a stir fry for dinner. Even now as I sit in my newly cleaned and decorated flat my energy levels haven’t dipped to where they would usually be at this time of night. In short, today has been a valuable lesson and one I must remember and make an effort to repeat more regularly.

But whilst another early night tonight and gym session tomorrow are most certainly scheduled into the diary, tomorrow night will be another matter entirely. Why? Because some months back four friends and I decided it would make perfect sense to purchase tickets to the famous Warehouse Project music event in Manchester and, to save ourselves money on accommodation, return to London on the first train on Saturday morning. What we may have failed to factor into that particular equation is that all of us, bar one, are now in our thirties, and not quite the spring chickens we were when we went all night clubbing in the halcyon days of our twenties. Not that we can’t still party with the best of them, but these days I struggle to stay up until the sunrise, let alone to stay up until the sunrise and then get a two hour train home. But hey, it’s Silly Season. Nights like tomorrow are the whole point, no?

Spinning Plates

Aside

I’ve just been reading a magazine article about people who plan too far ahead and generally take on too much, and how it can be harmful to your health to set too many deadlines in life (apparently people who set lots of deadlines are four times more likely to have heart attacks…), and beneficial to sometimes be spontaneous and just go with the flow.

This weekend I’ve been back home with my mum and stepdad. Mum always worries that I’m doing too much and not getting enough rest (to be fair, given in the past two months alone I’ve organised two big parties with a third in the pipeline, planned a forthcoming trip to Hong Kong and the Philippines in the new year, signed up to a marathon in March next year and written 33,000 words of a new novel – in addition to the daily blogs I’ve been posting every day of this year so far – she might have a point), but I always argue that I like being busy.

And it’s true, I DO like being busy. It keeps my brain active and keeps me inspired. It also makes me a more interesting person, or at least I like to think so. Exercising keeps me healthy and happy, writing soothes my soul and, although planning social engagements can be stressful (the most recent one – a festive lunch for 40 people – particularly so), I love getting people together and knowing the occasion wouldn’t have happened had it not been for my tenacity and enthusiasm in organising it.

I feel so blessed to lead such a busy and fulfilling life, it’s just not in my nature to sit around and do nothing. That said, I’ve really pushed myself to the limit with today’s almost-eleven mile run. And, after getting home from a fabulous roast dinner with friends, my whole body aching, I have to say I’m glad ‘all’ I have to do tomorrow is catch up the 6,300 words I’m currently behind with my novel…

Peter Pan Syndrome

As I prepare to move seamlessly from an afternoon of sanding and varnishing furniture in a nursery to an all-night fancy dress (Halloween-themed) techno rave with twenty friends, it does occur to me the life I lead is sometimes a dichotomy of considerable proportions.

I’ve talked about my (late onset) love of fancy dress on this blog before, and have also touched more than once on my deep-seated fear that I should start acting my age. But the problem is this: I don’t want to. Yes, I’m thirty two now and yes, there is a palpably strong argument to be made that it’s time to slow down, rein in the partying and (wait for it) “settle down.” And yet the counter argument of thirty two no longer being ‘old’ in a society where everything is increasingly happening later in life is just as compelling.

There’s also the fact I have a boyfriend who is five years younger than me, which means that even if I wanted to tone down my social life I would struggle to do so without being labelled the ‘boring older woman.’ Not that I really care what I’m labelled these days (that being the only obvious benefit of growing up, as far as I can see).

Reading the above one might assume I’m out on the town every night. This, I’m happy to report, is very much not the case. I worked out the second I hit thirty that mid-week drinking in this decade and beyond would only bring me pain-not that I always manage to remember that, mind, but at least the slip ups are fewer these days. When I do go out I simply like to make sure that the occasion is steeped in fun-and how much more fun can you get than fancy dress? I’ll tell you: No more.

It could be argued that I have a severe case of Peter Pan Syndrome, and that may well be right, but you know what? When I’m old and grey and lying on my death bed I will never have cause for concern that I didn’t make the most of being young(ish). Come to think of it, I wonder if they do fancy dress parties in heaven…