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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Solitude

It’s been a long old while since I’ve practiced meditation, or indeed any form of mindfulness; two of the many things I mentally flagellate myself about daily. This weekend, therefore, has been a blessing. Not because I’ve done either of those things (obvs), but because I have had the chance to spend some quality time with myself, and with nature. And because, as cheesy as it sounds, it has given me a much needed opportunity to reconnect with myself.

Life rushes by at such an alarming rate – especially, as I’ve discovered in recent months, when you have a wedding to plan. Lately (or, to be truly honest, forever) I’ve felt so time poor it’s taken all my effort just to get home from work at the end of the day, run a bath and crack on an episode of Eastenders (weird new guilty pleasure – clearly a sign of stress) before falling, exhausted, into bed. Meditation? Ha. As if. I’ve never felt less calm or more busy.

But then, last week, the soon-to-be-husband (eep!) announced he would be going back to the UK this weekend, sans moi (well, I had the choice to accompany him, but after last week’s boozy and nocturnal antics in Las Vegas the thought of spending 16 hours in a car only to hold a paint brush all weekend – they are renovating the family home, yes, I know, I’m a selfish cow – was too much to entertain). At first I was put out (see previous selfish cow comment), and sad at missing the opportunity to spend a quiet weekend together. I hastily scrambled some social options together in case I needed back up, and prepared to bunker down for a weekend alone with the bottle of Chianti hubby-to-be bought me to soften the blow (a welcome gift, and further proof, it it was needed, that he’s a keeper).

Yesterday (Saturday), I lazed around in the morning then went shopping all afternoon. So far so good. In the evening, feeling more confident about being alone (Jesus, you wouldn’t think I’ve travelled alone for months at a time in the past would you?), I declined all social plans, heated up a Marks and Spencer ready meal (God how I’ve missed those – totally forgot an M&S opened up here a few months ago. Result) and downloaded a gratuitous chick flick from Amazon. But it wasn’t until today that I felt a change occur. Yesterday was enjoyable, but in a shallow way (not that there is anything wrong with that, in my opinion, at least from time to time). I was gratified by material purchases and ‘guilty pleasure’ TV consumption, but that was as far as it went. Today I somehow knew as soon as I woke up it would be different. And it has been.

My recent back injury having put paid to any hope of a pre-wedding gym comeback, I have to make sure I still get some exercise each day. I decided, therefore, to go for a walk, the timing of which was fortuitously impeccable. It had just rained heavily, and the sun was beginning to nudge the clouds aside. I walked to Tenbosch Park, just ten minutes from home. I don’t know what it is about that place, but as soon as I get there I always feel an overwhelming sense of calm descend upon me. It’s so beautifully kept, unusual in that it is both small and spread over several levels – sort of landscaped over a small hill – and feels to me like a secret garden, a tiny oasis amidst the sprawling metropolis. I just love it, and after visiting today by myself my mind feels clearer than it has done in weeks. I spent a while just standing and listening to the birds tweeting, watching as a parrot (yes, really, apparently Brussels is famous for them) flew overhead from tree top to tree top. It was wonderful, and a welcome reminder that even if I’m not meditating every chance I get, it’s still possible to find a little piece of peace in this frenetic world.

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It’s the Little Things…

My boyfriend has a theory about me. He says I’m a product of my own environment, which apparently means when faced with challenging situations – like the one in which we met almost four years ago in Borneo – I thrive, but when conditions are less harsh, I struggle. He says sometimes he can’t believe I’ve travelled on my own around India and Indonesia, when only last week I got so anxious about moving to a flat five minutes down the road.

I haven’t been convinced about this theory until today, when I got to work and spent most of the morning fretting because I’d accidentally put some salt crystals in the rinse aid compartment of the dishwasher, and the dimmer switch for the kitchen lights appeared to have broken. After having to get a plumber in to descale the shower head yesterday morning I was loath to tell the landlady there were two new issues to deal with in our first week of residing here. It was bothering me so much, in fact, that I felt that familiar feeling of panic rising up inside me.

Considering this in the context of my boyfriend’s theory, I realise he is absolutely right. When I was in the wilds of Borneo – dealing with giant bugs, floods and lugging 20kg bags of cement up hills whilst also fulfilling the dual roles of communications officer and photographer – I was in my element, with rarely a moment to dwell on the minutiae of daily life. Sure, it was emotionally and physically draining at times, but I didn’t let silly things get me down. I didn’t have time to worry (least of all about a dishwasher – that’s if I had actually had one), I needed to survive; I wanted to excel.

Fast forward four years and here I am, living in a lovely flat in Brussels, with a lovely man and a pretty great job. But with no threat of danger and no great challenges to occupy my time, the little things are slowly but surely creeping back in. Whereas a broken light would have barely registered in my consciousness when I was recovering alone from a sickness bug in the remote Himachal Pradesh region of northern India, now it’s enough to set my pulse racing and make me feel sick with dread.

I’m glad to have recognised this tendency because I want to nip it in the bud. Life’s too short to stress about broken appliances, and too precious to waste on negative emotions like worry.  It’s important to keep things in perspective, to sense check whether the thing that’s causing stress will really matter a year from now, which invariably it won’t. So from now on I will try to do just that. One broken appliance at a time…

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Rejecting Stasis and Embracing Change

sta·sis

  1. motionless state: a state in which there is neither motion nor development, often resulting from opposing forces balancing each other
  2. state of no change: a state in which there is little or no apparent change in a species of organism over a long period of time.

“He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.” – Harold Wilson

“To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.” – Henri Bergson

As you might have guessed from the above definition and quotes, in recent days I’ve been ruminating on the nature of change. This is, I suppose, unsurprising given that my immediate friendship groups are currently undergoing a lot of it. Some people have had babies, others are moving abroad, and it’s all a bit, well, unsettling if I’m honest. Which is only natural. If we weren’t scared of change we’d be robots. Anything that alters the comfortable stasis of our lives is inevitably going to wobble our foundations a little. But surely being wobbled is a good thing?

I’ve always said my greatest fear in life (besides being attacked by a shark or waking up with a tarantula on my face – those two remain the greatest fears of all) is waking up one day and realising I’ve been doing the same thing for the past twenty years. Why? Because there is SO much to DO in this world; so many places to live, so many jobs to try, so many hobbies to take up. Why wouldn’t we take every opportunity that’s offered to us? Why not make the most of every moment? It’s so easy to get stuck in a rut, to fall into a career that doesn’t grab you and to follow that trajectory to the grave. Making fundamental changes IS terrifying, but sometimes it’s the only way to pull ourselves out of the slough of despond so many of us reside in for our entire adult lives. As Mark Twain said, “twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did.” I don’t want to look back on my life with regrets about the things I didn’t do. And whilst change does scare me, I’m determined not to let it hold me back.

I’m also determined to stop worrying about the effect of change on my relationships. Just because a person moves away doesn’t mean your friendship will die. If they’re a good enough friend in the first place, that relationship will thrive no matter where you are. Sure, you might see or talk to that person less, but that just means it’s all the more important to make the times you do see and speak to them count.

Life is too short to spend worrying about change and what other people think. Life is for living. And, one way or another, that’s exactly what I intend to do.

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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

Happy Birthday to my Spiritual Twin

Today is a very special person’s 27th birthday, and as I can’t think of a better way to mark this most auspicious of occasions (plus I’ve only just learned of the occasion and therefore haven’t time to do anything else), I thought a blog post in her honour might just fit the birthday bill. Because, you see, this person is special for a number of reasons, and one of those reasons is writing.

Allow me, if you will, the luxury of a nostalgic trip into the past – May 2011, to be precise, on a lazy backwater tour of Cochin in India. That day I met a girl called Jen who hailed from Brisbane and was five years my junior, and with whom I instantly got on. We were both travelling alone, and it was most enjoyable to share our experiences as our guide negotiated the labyrinthine maze of aquatic waterways.

As fate would have it when I arrived at the Sivananda ashram in southern Kerala a couple of days later who should be there but Jen? It turned out we had both booked onto the two week ‘yoga vacation,’ although it quickly became apparent this would be about as far removed from a holiday as could be. Five am starts, ‘karma yoga’ duties and four gruelling hours of yoga a day was an exhausting regime, and if Jen hadn’t been there to laugh with in the moments when it all got too much I’m not sure I’d have lasted the two weeks.

Fast forward to January 2013, by which time Jen had moved to New York after her travels to start a new life, and was making ends meet by waitressing, spending her free time working on her novel. When I sensed from her messages that she was feeling a little flat I felt a strong urge to visit her, and before I knew it April had come around and I was on my way to New York City.

The six days we spent together were amazing, especially considering we didn’t really know each other that well, and almost two years had passed since our last face to face meeting. We were laughing from the second Jen met me at the airport, and we didn’t stop until it was time to say goodbye. We walked sixty blocks in an afternoon, searched for mystical horses in Grand Central station, ate pizza, burgers and cupcakes like they were going out of fashion and painted New Jersey and downtown Manhattan entirely new shades of red. We also discovered a shared passion for cheese, and whiled away a perfect afternoon in Murray’s Cheese Bar over a bottle of quality red.

Leaving NYC was a wrench, because I knew I’d found in Jen something so very rare – a spiritual soul mate, if you believe in such a thing, someone who is so much like yourself you could actually be related. We both love to write, we’re both utterly neurotic (!) and we share an interest in spirituality.

Since New York we’ve kept in touch via a series of endlessly entertaining Whatsapp messages, which often leave me giggling aloud in public (not a good look). And now as Jen prepares to leave the city she has come to love for pastures new (Hawaii, as it happens – not a bad choice of destination), I find myself wishing I could join her on her next adventure, and in ways I can’t explain feeling that in some way I am.

So, on your 27th birthday, here’s to you, my Spiritual Twin. Thank you for the laughs your friendship over the past two and a half years has given me, and here’s to the future and all it brings. Remember that no decision we make is ever wrong – because each one gives us so much new material to enrich our writing and our lives. Love you x

Travelling in miniature (and I don’t mean the toiletries)

Anyone who has ever travelled far from home will be familiar with the warm and fuzzy feeling that you get when you come back. They will also, I suspect, be familiar with the sense of longing that creeps up once you’ve been back for a while, and the tingly anticipation that accompanies the planning of new travels and the promise of fresh adventure. The travelling bug is cyclical, you see, and it is only by leaving and then returning to your place of comfort that you can appreciate both what you left behind and what you discovered while you were away. Or is it? If we were always free to roam the world at will and on a whim, would we become complacent about our situation? Or would we simply wake each day beneath a swaying palm, curl our toes into the sand as the sea softly lapped over them and appreciate each lazy second that ticked by and how fortunate we were to have such an existence?

After my travels in 2011 I remember vividly being in a taxi travelling over Vauxhall Bridge after a night out. The sun was beginning to rise, bathing all of London in a gorgeous sleepy morning haze, and I felt a rush of warmth towards this city I call home. It was a particularly lovely moment because it could so directly be contrasted with a rather less enjoyable moment several months before when, unable to bear the sweaty morning commute for a second longer, I snapped at someone on the tube, and subsequently realised that for my sanity and the safety and wellbeing of those around me it would be best if I went away for a while. And you know what? It worked a treat, and since returning almost two years ago I can honestly say I haven’t exchanged a cross word with a fellow commuter.

Unfortunately the opportunity to just take off for months at a time is not something the majority of people are able to do, and now I’m back in full time (well, as good as full time) employment I’m trying to find a way to satisfy my travelling cravings without actually going on a full blown travelling excursion. I had thought the answer was to plan a travelling trip in miniature. That is, to pick a far flung place, book a flight there and then spend two weeks travelling around. The problem, as I’m coming to find, is that when visiting far flung locations the flight alone costs the earth. But a bigger problem still is that half the joy of travelling is the ability to drift around without a firm plan, changing your mind and direction at the drop of a hat when the winds of adventure change. If you only have two weeks it’s not as easy to go where the wind takes you. You have to have some idea of where you’re going or you might just find you’ve wasted your whole trip queuing for bus tickets in some dead end town. In short, if you don’t plan, you risk spoiling the short time you have, and if you do, the experience will likely feel more like a package holiday tour than a genuine travelling experience. First world dilemma I know, but a dilemma nonetheless.

Maybe it’s just not feasible to travel in miniature, and the whole concept was just a pipe dream I constructed to make me feel less confined within the boundaries of my current situation. Perhaps I should admit defeat and book a package holiday to some nondescript Spanish resort, where the all you can eat buffet and watered down cocktails are included in the price and there’s a talent show each night for all the families. Or perhaps I should keep thinking until I find a solution, because otherwise I fear London won’t be this agreeable forever…