Saturday, 22 December 2012

Foggy Halong Bay

I was told that it's not worth visiting Halong Bay unless the weather is good, so when I saw the forecast of sunshine and clear skies for the two days I'd set aside for the trip, I was thrilled.

However, weather forecasts seem as unreliable here as elsewhere, and we drove through drizzle and fog for four hours until we arrived at the harbour, where even the ships in the dock were barely visible. And, for the first time on my trip, I was cold. Perhaps it was meant to be a reminder of what I'll be facing when I get home...

Halong Bay itself is fairly impressive - no doubt more so in clear conditions. Once out on the water aboard a junk, we were surrounded by limestone carsts - and other ships. The tourism industry here is big business.

So, like every other ship, we stopped off at a floating village (where the 'houses' even had Christmas trees and televisions inside!) and went kayaking, then visited 'Surprise Cave', though I'm not so sure what the surprise was meant to be. It was fairly atmospheric inside though.

We boarded our junk again and counted our blessings that there was hot water in the showers, then enjoyed a seafood dinner before having an early night - we needed to be up at 6 the next morning to go on a hike, and swimming if we so desired...

Having seen the brown muck being pumped out by many ships, we decided to forgo the swimming option and instead climbed to the top of Ti Top island where the views were once again restricted by the fog, though after the amount of spring rolls and noodles I have consumed on this trip I considered it a significant achievement just to make it to the top!

Back on board, we checked out of our rooms and then lounged on the sundeck before returning to the harbour and eating more rice and noodles for lunch, and then took the bus back to Hanoi. It wasn't the highlight of my trip, but I'm still glad I've seen the bay. I can't help but feel that - as is the case with a lot of this country - it would have been best to visit twenty or so years ago, before the tourism industry took over at the expense of the natural beauty and authentic experiences to be had here. Some things don't seem to have changed though - toilets lack paper, drivers still whizz down the wrong side of the road, and it's almost impossible to eat a meal that doesn't include rice or noodles. Perhaps the next twenty years will change that...

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Bargain hunting

I could spend a fortune here. Everywhere I look, I'm tempted by silk dressing gowns, hand-embroidered jackets, exquisite handbags...this place is dangerous.

And with no one to restrict me, I somehow ended up laden down with bags of shoes, bags and purses to bring home. Oops.

So that was my next morning in Hanoi. I stopped off on my way around the shops for some kem (ice cream) from a shop heaving with locals - apparently in summer the queues (or rather, masses - the Vietnamese don't do queuing) spill out onto the street.

The magnetism of the beautiful opera house area once again drew me in, and I had lunch at an absolutely magnificent hotel, whose restaurant, Cafe Lautrec, was one of the most splendidly decorated spaces I have ever eaten in. And as for the food - a dreamy salad buffet, with all-you-can-eat oysters, lobster, sushi, cheese, bread (of the Western variety! Hooray!), followed by desserts...pure indulgence, but utterly delicious.

I staggered back to my hotel and was met by a member of Hanoikids, a group which offers free tours of Hanoi. My companion was studying public finance at university here and gave me a fantastic tour. We started at the Temple of Literature, where the offerings left by visitors included towers of Coca Cola cans, bottles of vodka, Oreo cookies and cigarettes. Now THAT sounds like an afterlife...

We then visited the market and more of the sprawling streets of the Old Quarter, including a stop at a shop selling weasel coffee, where I drank the best cup of coffee I've ever had, prepared in the tiniest kitchen I've ever seen by a woman juggling making sales to about five different customers at the same time. Despite being rushed off her feet, she later brought us some dried lotus seeds, which are supposedly meant to make you sleep well. They obviously work - we walked back to the hotel and I had an hour-long nap!

In the evening I went out for yet more bargain hunting, only to discover that the dresses I'd been admiring in a shop window earlier were now being modelled by real Vietnamese women...time to call it a night, I decided.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Noisy Hanoi

I arrived in Hanoi the local way - taking a bus with its doors always open (even when travelling at speeds of about 100km/hr) in order to pick up/drop off various waifs and strays along the way. My bag was shoved in what I suppose served as the boot, alongside a mucky-looking spare tyre. Two hours of torrential rain later it was handed back to me, soaking wet and coated in mud. Which is even more fun when you have to mount it on your back to walk to your hotel...

The rain had cleared at least though - small mercies. Once I had deep-cleaned myself (the bag was beyond hope), I headed out to explore the city.

I got lost almost immediately. The Old Town is a maze of tiny streets, each selling a particular thing, from mirrors to dried fruit to gravestones - and, at this time of year, there's even a Santa Street. Crossing the road is difficult enough here, let alone when trying to avoid motorbikes carrying oversized Christmas trees as well as the standard three passengers they cram on the back.

My detour was nevertheless highly interesting - a street devoted to coffee sellers turned into a street selling gorgeous silk items, which then turned into a street selling oversized cuddly toys (I had to resist the temptation, although the next street - selling luggage - would have easily solved any transportation problems).

I ended up at the opera house and somehow managed to find my way into the stunning Sofitel Metropole hotel next door. After a good three seconds of trying to resist, I gave in and took their chocolate afternoon tea buffet. Incroyable. Endless truffles, cakes, crepes, cookies, ice a few savoury things thrown in for good measure. While I was there, I overheard a small boy telling his mother that "5-star hotels just aren't the same as 6-star ones". It may have lacked caviar and a few other trimmings, but I thought it was superb.

I walked off a small portion of the indulgence with a stroll around the West Lake, before diving into yet more specialist streets. I watched the sun go down as an outdoor performing arts competition took place, involving - you've guessed it - yet more karaoke performances, with endearing attempts to mimic the lyrics of Western pop songs through a series of meaningful mumblings. Although the prospect of listening to an evening of Vietnamese Vengaboys imitations was a tempting one, the Australian friends I'd made in Ninh Binh invited me to meet them at a rooftop bar with the most incredible views of the city. As motorbikes revved, horns beeped, people shouted and singers warbled below, we raised a toast to this frantic but fantastic city.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Ninh Binh

Upon arrival in Ninh Binh, my luck seemed to have turned from bad to worse. I was shaken awake at 4.20am by the driver of the sleeper bus (it was due to arrive at 6), and dumped on the side of the road in the dark, with absolutely no idea where I was. I walked for what seemed like miles in desperate search of my hotel, and eventually saw its flashing light in the distance - miracles do happen. However, there was still a minor problem to overcome - it was on the other side of a train track, which I could see no way of crossing. An hour later, after what seemed like an endless maze of alleyways (and a few encounters with stray dogs and rats), I somehow found it, all closed up for the night. A very sleepy man let me in and I collapsed in bed for a couple of hours.

However, my experience the following day more than made up for my middle of the night meanderings. I met an Australian man and his daughter and a guy from Switzerland in the lobby and joined them for a trip to some of the most incredible sights in the local area. We were blessed with beautiful sunshine and spent two hours being rowed through the Trang An grottoes, gasping at how stunning the scenery was at every turn. We went through several caves, ducking our heads but being left speechless by their tranquility - and, as we re-emerged outside, once again shaking our heads in disbelief at the natural beauty of the area, painstakingly maintained by the locals who waved at us as they weeded the crystal-clear waters (and only occasionally tried to take our photos and sell them to us, using printers on board their tiny row boats!).

We thought we'd been sufficiently wowed, but there were further gems to discover. These included the ruins of Hoa Lu, the ancient capital of Vietnam, and a stunning new temple complex built in 2010, the scale of which is unbelievable - especially considering that it feels like it's located in the middle of nowhere.

We stopped for a lunch of the local speciality - goat, rolled (as always) with herbs in rice paper - then avoided numerous goat droppings as we climbed 500 steps up to the panoramic view from the peak above Mua Cave. Both the climb and the views took our breath away - we could see birds flying beneath us, and for miles beyond, a mix of farms, paddy fields, building sites and complexes of houses and high-rise buildings: a true reflection of this eclectic country.

We staggered back down to the bottom and after much-needed showers we wandered around the city of Ninh Binh, stopping at a neighbourhood eatery for a bowl of steaming pho ngan (another local speciality) - it was mostly duck fat, but probably just what we needed after the day's activities.

After a good night's sleep and another stodgy breakfast of banana pancakes, I was set up to board the bus to Hanoi the next morning. I'm even getting used to the delicate balancing act of sitting on the back of a motorbike zig-zagging in and out of traffic with my backpack on my back to get to the station. Wearing a seatbelt, driving on the correct side of the road, using horns sparingly and obeying traffic lights will all come as surprises to me when I get home!

Monday, 17 December 2012

Humble Hue

To tell the truth, I didn't much enjoy Hue. I was probably just unlucky, but my experiences of the place weren't the most positive. As I walked to my hotel, backpack in tow, every ten seconds I would hear yet another 'Hallo! You! Where you go?', which became more and more irritating as I pressed on.

Once I finally reached my hotel and had checked in, I walked to the market (passing endless persistent taxi/motorbike/cyclo drivers all shouting at me to purchase their services) and once there was continually dragged by women to their stalls, trying to make me buy Tiger Balm, shoes and scarves, or eat their food. I found what I thought was a quieter place to sit and sample some of the banh specialities of Hue, only to be joined by swathes of women stroking my skin - and then to be charged a ridiculous amount for a meal that should have cost a fraction of the price.

I know I shouldn't be surprised by any of this. But it had been a long day, and my patience had been exhausted already. And the whole point of eating at the market is to sample local food at local prices - if I'd wanted the price tag I was given, I could have found a nice restaurant nearby, and be spared the endless staring and stroking as well.

After a futile attempt to visit the Citadel, involving yet more hassling by drivers, I decided to call it a day and head back to my hotel...which was located next door to a karaoke bar. And believe me, the Vietnamese go for volume and outlandishness over tuneful renditions. I endured three hours of it and then thanked the Lord for the midnight curfew...

Following my lack of success at the Citadel the previous day, I decided to join an organised tour to see it the next morning. Certainly, there were still postcard sellers shouting at every corner, drinks sellers meeting us off the bus, and the obligatory stops at incense stick-making and conical hat-making workshops with yet more hard sellers, but this time I had a group of other tourists to share my frustration this time!

We also went to see three emperors' tombs, which were set in picturesque, peaceful areas - a welcome escape from the chaos of the city, though accompanied by masses of mosquitos, my bite-ridden body can confirm... Towards the end of the trip it was all beginning to merge into one blur of engravings and buildings - a time to be thankful for digital cameras, I suppose.

Having been promised a bus transfer back to the hotel which turned out to be a walking bus transfer, I was extremely grateful to be able to have a shower before boarding a fourteen-hour sleeping bus to Ninh Binh, which I survived...just.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Hoi Antics

I chose to visit what was described on my hotel's tour leaflet as 'My Son Holly Land' on my second day in Hoi An, excited for the Christmassy treats in store. In fact, it turned out to be ruins of an ancient religious site, explained our professional conman tour guide, collecting,000 dong from us for the privilege.

It's not Angkor Wat, but must have been a pretty impressive structure before it was ruined by bombings in the Vietnam War (the craters are gigantic), or the heads of the statues removed by the French (they're now in the Louvre, if you're interested). What's left is rather sparse, and the tour was made even more dismal by yet more rain. Naturally, our tour guide wasn't going to miss another money-making opportunity and collected money to buy us ponchos. Only this time I'd remembered the raincoat, ha!

Back in Hoi An, I embraced the slow pace of life by hopping between coffee shops, writing postcards and sharing stories with fellow travellers. I ate dinner at the market, sampling Hoi An specialities such as 'White Rose' (rice paper dumplings of some kind) and cao lau - pork served with noodles supposedly made with water from the town's famous Ba Le Well. As with many stories in Vietnam, it's best to be sceptical about the provenance of said noodles and just enjoy them for what they are: yummy and filling.

In the evening I joined some friends I'd made during the tour and at my hostel to go to a bar with unlimited drinks for 100,000 dong (for those used to Western money, that's not a huge amount - in fact it's an obscenely small sum of money).

However, before we were able to fully exploit the perks of the offer, the music came to a stop and the place was hastily closed up by the police, who marched us out - my first experience of the midnight curfew supposedly enforced throughout the country. Though with a 7am bus to catch the next day, perhaps it was a blessing in disguise!

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Lantern town

Hoi An is charming. It's a welcome escape from the frenetic pace of life elsewhere in Vietnam, with precious few motorbikes zipping past, and smiling, friendly people who aren't as persistent with their 'Hallo! Moto-bike! Where you go? I take you moto-bike!' routine.

But there's a catch. When it rains, it pours. Locals and tourists embrace their garishly-coloured ponchos and attempt to carry on with their activities, but I was caught out on my first night, and trudged home through the puddles wearing shorts and flip-flops. Not fun.

Still, I'm glad I ventured out - the Old Town at night is magical, with colourful lanterns lighting up the river and couples eating romantic dinners on its banks. As for me, I decided my soaking wet attire wouldn't go down so well in the restaurants, so I had my first banh mi from a street vendor instead. It hit the spot perfectly - a crusty French baguette filled with meats, pates, cucumber and herbs, drizzled with special sauces. Delicious.

I was up early the next morning, so wandered through the maze of streets in the Old Town, passing families chomping on pho for breakfast. I stumbled upon a cafe that offered cooking classes and decided to give it a go. The head chef took a small group of us around the market, introducing us to the herbs and spices and fruits and vegetables that are fundamental ingredients in Vietnamese cuisine, and showed us all the gory detail of the meat and fish selection too. Just the way to work up an appetite...

We then took a lovely boat trip to the secluded cookery school, which was gorgeous. We went on a tour around its herb garden before learning how to make rice paper rolls, banh xeo (savoury crepes), and clay pot dishes - and eating the results. And in case we were still hungry, they cooked us a huge lunch afterwards too.

Sufficiently fuelled for an afternoon of strolling around the Old Town, I later attempted to suck in my belly and go for a clothes fitting - Hoi An's tailors are famous for being able to make almost anything to measure. Alas, I was too indecisive to choose something - maybe next time...

As if my colossal lunch hadn't been enough, I later went to a restaurant that is hugely popular with locals called the Ba Le Well, where you are continually brought grilled pork skewers, banh xeo and spring rolls until you can manage no more, all for 90,000 dong. I'm fairly sure I ate my way through an entire pig - and as the owner patted my belly and said 'Happy Buddha', I think he would agree.

If the endless food wasn't a big enough incentive to remain there all night, the recommenced rainfall made it difficult to leave as well. Cursing myself for not having learnt my lesson the night before, I waded my way back to the hostel yet again - no doubt to the amusement of the savvy street vendors sheltered under their umbrellas and ponchos. Next time, the pac-a-mac is coming along too.

Friday, 14 December 2012


I probably didn't pick the best route for my first experience of Vietnamese bus rides - the roads up to the hill town of Dalat are endlessly winding, and the constant soundtrack of families fighting, music playing, children crying and the driver honking his horn made it difficult to catch up on sleep - even with my industrial-strength earplugs.

It didn't matter though; the views were breathtaking, and as we got higher we became surrounded by clouds, only to emerge to a town that could be part of France transplanted in Vietnam. Pastel-coloured villas, a beautiful lake, romantic fountains, endless green farms and hills - it's a beautiful place.

But what made my experience magical was the hospitality I received at my hotel. Run by a wife and husband team with an exceedingly cute little girl, the owner of the hotel, Adfa, insisted on taking me out on a motorbike ride with her daughter to see the city at night. Couples were taking photographs by the fountains, taking rides on swan pedalos on the flood-lit lake, or just walking around hand-in-hand with smiles across their faces. I could see why this is the honeymoon capital of Vietnam.

We visited the market and Adfa recommended some local produce for me to buy, then took care of the haggling so that I wasn't ripped off. We stopped and pulled up tiny plastic schools (think of those you used to sit on at nursery school) and enjoyed some green bean tea (I've no idea what the green beans are, but they're certainly sweeter than the kind served with the Sunday roast back home), then walked around the winding streets, stopping at a Vietnamese bakery for me to discover the joys of sticky rice cakes, banana cakes, coconut mille feuille and all sorts of other exceedingly sweet treats.

We zipped back to the hotel and I tucked myself up in a huge bed - a welcome change from the dorm bunks I've been used to so far - and indulged in an evening of chuckling at Mr. Bean on TV. Bliss.

The next morning I went to the 'Crazy House', which is a rather out-of-place, Gaudi-like building filled with endless wacky figurines and mazes of staircases and tunnels. Apparently you can stay there - there's even a honeymoon suite - though I'm not sure what waking up to the gaze of a giant pelican statue would be like...

Adfa then took me out on another trip, up to a serene pagoda with stunning views, which we absorbed along with some Dalat milk (the best in Vietnam, apparently) and rice cakes. I took a cable car trip - cue more breathtaking views - and Adfa met me the other side with her motorbike, then showed me the flower gardens, the cute (but now defunct) railway station, and the church, before stopping for a snack of papaya salad and che. At this rate it might not be the best idea to continue sitting on the tiny plastic stools...

Our next stop was an astonishing temple, where a gigantic statue has been made entirely from flowers. Lest I go hungry again, Adfa took me back home and cooked me a lunch of pork, shrimp, salad and greens, which made a pleasant change from the rather gristly frog I had been served up at a restaurant the night before.

It was time for a nap before I caught my flight to Danang, with Adfa again insisting that she took me to the meeting point for the transfer bus. I have never experienced hospitality like that which I received in Dalat - and after the sad number of scams and rip-offs that are a constant reality for tourists elsewhere in Vietnam, it was a breath of fresh air. I only wish I could have stayed for longer - I guess I'll just have to go back one day.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

A Nha Trangover

Note to self: it helps to put suncream on one's back when snorkelling in 40-degree heat. Carrying a backpack on a blistering, red back is excrutiatingly painful.

But the pain was worth it - my snorkelling trip in Nha Trang was sensational. One of the pleasant surprises of travelling so far has been the number of French and German speakers I've met along the way - I've had more opportunities to practise my languages in Vietnam than I would normally have back home in England! The boat trip to the islands of Hon Mun and Hon Mot was no exception - the other participants were all German, other than two lovely Aussie girls who persuaded me to throw myself off the top deck of the boat with them many a time, despite almost losing my bikini on several occasions (no wonder the fish swam a mile as soon as we came close...).

We got to see some amazing coral and fish, including one with a very long nose that I called a 'pinocchio fish' (I'm fairly sure it has a proper name, but you get the idea), and lion fish. It was my first time snorkelling and to be able to swim in such crystal clear water and get so close to the fish was wonderful - we could even pick up the jellyfish and throw them at each other (not that we would ever do so cruel a thing).

Our boat was basic but had everything we needed - sun loungers on the top, and the wherewithal for our guide to cook us a fabulous feast of prawns, frog, fish, egg, noodles, rice and some exceedingly garlicky morning glory for lunch. The Vietnamese have a wonderful way of observing the law - we were told to wear our life jackets for a total of about 15 seconds as we left the port, before taking them off again.

As we made our way back to the harbour, we passed a hill with a huge Hollywood-style sign on it which read 'Vinpearl' - apparently it's hugely popular with the Vietnamese, who go wild for the kitsch rides and Asia's longest cable car (wow!) that connects it to Nha Trang. It certainly caters to local tastes (read: over-the-top and excessively commercial) rather than Western inclinations, so we gave it a miss and watched the sunset from the slightly less commercial (but still unashamedly touristy) Nha Trang beach instead.

Rather than lament the somewhat spoilt natural beauty of the resort, the Aussie girls and I decided to accept it for what it was worth, by taking advantage of the variety of free cocktails on offer to ladies in the many bars in the city. Nha Trang might be a party town, but when you're operating on Vietnamese time (getting up at the crack of dawn and being in bed by 9pm at the latest), it's hard to be a party animal. After sampling the dubious delights of 'free Oasis shots', having an ominous-looking blue concoction poured into our mouths from a giant bottle, and making our way through a 'jamjar', we could barely keep our eyes open. We called it a night and let the other travellers do the partying for us.

The next morning I enjoyed a lovely breakfast of banana pancakes on the roof terrace of my hostel, cooked by a very sweet girl who said I could be the next Miss World and asked if we could 'swap skins'. Perhaps not.

However, after another sizzling session on the beach (when will I learn...), I was willing to reconsider my decision. Let's just say that camomile lotion is my best friend at the present moment.

I soon decided it was high time to leave Nha Trang, lest I burn to a crisp. Stifling cries of pain, I mounted my backpack on my bright red back once again, and boarded a bus up to the hills of Dalat, a stark contrst with the temptations endless sunbathing on the beach, but equally charming in its own right.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

So long, Saigon

Having said farewell to Felix and Tom, I spent my last full day in Ho Chi Minh City on my own, finding companionship with all sorts of creatures at the zoo (as you do). There were lots of elephants, giraffes, lions, tigers and monkeys to keep me entertained, although some of the Vietnamese visitors seemed to take more interest in me than the animals!

I then walked to the Jade Emperor Pagoda, where there were numerous gargoyle-like figures casting disapproving looks at me, so I hastily moved on to Ben Thanh market for a lunch of chao tom (grilled sugar cane rolled in shrimp paste) and banh xeo (a gigantic crepe stuffed with prawns, meat, beansprouts and vegetables, then eaten rolled in lettuce leaves).

I had some time to kill in the afternoon so decided to give some of the bargain beauty treatments a try - with mixed success. I passed on a haircut after seeing a woman having her locks tugged aggressively in an attempt to de-tangle them, and instead chose an eyebrow wax and a pedicure. The pedicure was great, but as for the eyebrows, let's just say that I'm thankful that I won't be back home for a good two weeks yet - rather than wax under the eyebrow, they wax above it here, to rather bizarre effect...

Fortunately I was able to drown my sorrows as a family friend who works in Ho Chi Minh City invited me for drinks in the evening. We eventually ended up at a Vietnamese gay bar, which was the first time during my trip that I've felt completely at ease in a masculine environment - no staring, no attempts to make me buy something or take a motorbike trip, just lots of good fun (and plenty of bad dancing!).

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Kings of the Mekong

After our visit to the tunnels we were up early for another day trip - to the Mekong Delta. The weather was looking rather ominous - we left Ho Chi Minh City amid downpours - but we kept our fingers crossed that the waters would remain in the Delta rather than falling on us once we arrived.

Fortunately, they did, and we enjoyed glorious sunshine as we boarded a boat that took us to our first island, Ben Tre. Sadly most of the islands seem to have been transformed into tourist attractions, although they still retain a certain charm. We watched keo dua (coconut candy) being made by local women, though I was wary not to lose any more teeth when it came to tasting it...

We were then given a short ride on a horse-drawn carriage, clinging for our lives as the horses galloped downhill and our rickety carriage threw us from side to side - it seems that the Vietnamese highway mentality afflicts even the animals here...

We wandered along some paths, watching (or rather, hearing) coconuts being felled, then boarded the boat to Phoenix Island where we were offered the opportunity to feed alligators, before being taken to a restaurant where we could feed on alligator if we so desired. We passed up the opportunity to sample such things as turtle, elephant ear fish, snake and an intriguing sounding 'dragon egg', and instead explored the village by bike.

The island was home to a bizarre, colourful monument that is supposedly the temple of the 'coconut religion'. Supposedly one of the practices of the faith was for its founder to lock himself for nine hours each day in a room, unclothed, with nine other women. No one knows what happened during that time...

We were brought back to our senses by a cup of honey tea, plates of fruit, and the dubious medicinal benefits of banana wine, which tasted like cough medicine, although apparently it's all the rage here.

We also got to hold a snake, whose tail somehow ended up in my pocket when it was my turn, and had to be retrieved with some urgency!

Once back in Ho Chi Minh City, we heard rumours of an ice cream parlour (with the unfortunate name of 'Fanny') that offered all-you-can-eat ice cream, fruit, crepes, profiteroles, cookies and all manner of other sweet treats on the first Friday of every month. It seemed too good to be true, but we joined hoards of Vietnamese who seemed equally hysteric about the 30 or so different flavours on offer and filled bowl after bowl until we could barely move.

On our walk back to our hostels we came across hundreds of women doing exercise routines to a soundtrack of bouncy pop music being played in the park - how better to burn off all the ice cream indulgence?!

Monday, 10 December 2012

Cu Chi and Che

There will be pictures when I can upload them!

My second day in Saigon was spent with Felix and Tom, who made a brief stop here as part of their Gap Yah adventures (of which I am exceedingly jealous). We were up at the crack of dawn to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, with the obligatory stop en-route at a craft workshop selling all manner of vases, cushion covers, coasters and every other nick-nack under the sun. We managed to resist the desire to buy a pair of 20-foot-tall vases (although I was convinced Mum would be thrilled with them for Christmas) and boarded the minibus again to take us to the tunnels. We were all just about able to squeeze ourselves into the holes in which soldiers hid themselves, although the actual tunnels, which have been made two to three times larger to accommodate tourists, were still a tight squeeze. Perhaps the endless rice and fried spring rolls are starting to show after all...

We were shown a variety of horrific traps that would shoot spears through unsuspecting soldiers in all different directions, before being told that many are still to be discovered. We remained firmly on the designated path...

The feeling of war still remaining in the background was reinforced by the constant background noise of guns being shot - for a mere 27,000 dong per bullet you could quite literally have a blast. We didn't try it, but the ear-splitting noise that formed an unending soundtrack to our trip suggested that many other people did.

We also got to try the tapioca that the guerillas ate. Once we got over the fact that it looked just like a parsnip, it was actually rather tasty!

We came back and continued the war theme by visiting the War Remnants Museum, which I had been warned would be a fairly harrowing experience. The images of war-time destruction were of course shocking, but what I found most upsetting were the portraits of Agent Orange victims, which are still being born with horrific deformities to this day - living reminders of a war which the people of Vietnam will never forget.

We sweetened the bitter taste left by these images with another visit to the Ben Thanh market stalls to try che, a sweet drink containing beans, corn, tapioca pearls, jelly and goodness knows what else, topped with coconut milk, condensed milk and ice, then mixed up to make a sweet soup-like concoction. It looked like frogspawn, but tasted surprisingly good. Looking back at the photos, however, it's hard to believe we actually enjoyed drinking what looked like dirty pond water!

In the evening I went for a massage at the Blind Institute. I'd heard very mixed reviews of people's experiences there - some raved about it, others hated it - and unfortunately my experience fell in the latter category. Bizarrely, my masseuse kept stopping to answer her phone, or shout across to her colleagues, so I wasn't able to relax as much as I'd hoped. However, there are endless spas here offering bargain treatments, so I suppose I'll just have to force myself to find better elsewhere. It's a tough life.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Hello Ho Chi Minh City

There will be pictures when I can upload them!

I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City in the early evening, and in an attempt to fight the impending jet lag, I dived into the nearest coffee shop I could find to fend off the desire to fall asleep for a few more hours. It worked. Vietnamese coffee is unbelievably strong. I asked the waitress to recommend me a blend, and was presented with a metal filtering device in which coffee dripped through into a bed of gloriously gloopy, sticky condensed milk. I later found out that this particular blend, called 'weasel coffee', is considered a gourmet specialty in Vietnam: coffee beans are fed to weasels and then harvested from their droppings. Delicious...

My hostel is located down a small alleyway just off the bustling main road of Pham Ngu Lao, the backpacker district. I stepped out early the next morning to find the street bustling with sellers of banh mi (like French baguettes, only filled with a meat pate far, far different from the sort you'd find in France...), fruit and vegetables, and all manner of meat and fish - including rat. It was all a bit much for me at 7am, so I took refuge in a cute little cake shop, where I opted for animals in chocolate cake form instead.

Ready to face the sea (no exaggeration) of motorbikes that perpetually runs through the streets - and often, if the drivers are feeling particularly impatient, the pavement too - I headed towards Ben Thanh market, where the choice of bags, shoes, clothing, trinkets and jewellery is overwhelming even for a professional shopper like me. In the end I gave up and consoled myself with a succession of exotic fruit juices from the food area, before heading to the Fine Arts museum.

Housed in a pretty building, the exhibits spanned many eras, and what I found particularly interesting was the Vietnamese angle on movements that I've previously only encountered in a western context. Battles from the Vietnam War were depicted in a Cubist style, or reverence for Communist leaders took on an abstract form. While there weren't the masterpieces of the grand European museums, it was nonetheless fascinating to see the Vietnamese take on these different styles.

My next stop was the Reunification Palace, which is a slightly bizarre mix of a tourist attraction and a still-functioning building for important meetings. The grand rooms are all closed off for tourists to peek in, yet some are still used for political occasions, when the palace is closed. These include grand banquets, and we were shown the kitchen where the food for these events is produced. The scale of the machinery is colossal, including a food mixer so large that I would probably be able to feed an army with just one batch of cupcakes...

Speaking of which, it was time for some refreshment - I found a quiet little cafe called Pacey Cupcakes and sipped ginger iced tea and a yogurt and raspberry cupcake. A hopelessly western indulgence, but nevertheless a haven from the chaos of the streets outside. I later restored the eat-west food balance in the form of spring rolls and noodles, a steaming bowl of beef pho, and rice paper prawn rolls with a ridiculously sweet, sticky caramel sauce for dipping.

Stepping back out into the sweltering sunshine, it felt a little strange to see Christmas decorations being put up and hear Christmas songs played in every shop. Not that I'm missing the cold weather of Britain. I'm more than happy to deal with fake icicles and polystyrene snow sculptures for a while longer yet.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Put A Soc In It!: Romance Society

Hoping to find love this week...

We all apply to Cambridge for its academic reputation, but there are also other important things to consider. I’d always intended to graduate with more than just a respectable degree – I want to leave Cambridge with a future husband too.

Three years in, however, and I’m yet to find my Prince Charming. As graduation looms, the remaining time to find ‘the one’ is running out at an alarming rate. Each week, my hopeful parents pose the same question on the phone – “So, have you met anyone interesting yet?” – and I think even my enduringly optimistic mother is starting to lose hope that her dream of a son-in-law who has made an appearance on University Challenge will be fulfilled.

But I’m not giving up just yet. Lured by promises of free chocolates and roses, I created an online profile with the Romance Society, hoping to inject fresh impetus into my hunt for the ideal man. I outlined my modest expectations – a true gentleman who will treat me like a princess, and nothing less – and signed up for a speed dating evening to optimise my chances. With twenty-two men taking part, I was feeling quietly confident that tonight would be my lucky night.

Each eligible bachelor had three minutes in which to impress me before the next suitor took his place. In the meantime, we could make notes on a person’s merits (or shortcomings) and put a ring around those who showed promise. At the end of the night our notes were collected so that ‘Cupid’ could subsequently share the details of those who expressed a reciprocated interest, allowing them to make arrangements for a follow-up date.

Admittedly, with some people the conversation had dried up entirely by the time we reached the end of our allocated slot, and we found ourselves sipping wine and nibbling cheese straws in an attempt to make the situation less awkward. I suppose it would be somewhat optimistic to expect to hit it off with every single person though – not to mention the taxing process of organising follow-up dates with all twenty-two of them…

Fortunately, with others, the three minutes flew by, and I felt like I had barely got to know them before the bell rang for us to change over again. That said, I suppose retaining a certain intrigue and curiosity is the whole point of the evening. Provided that I suitably impressed them, there were certainly a few Romeos I would be delighted to get to know better on another occasion.

Given the Romance Society’s impressive track record – at least fourteen couples have got married after meeting through the society – I think I might finally be making a breakthrough. I can’t promise that my mother’s dream of a University Challenge champion will ever be realised, but my experience of speed dating proved that there is a fascinating variety of single people in Cambridge. Surely that must mean that Mr. Right is out there somewhere?

Friday, 30 November 2012

Put A Soc In It!: Hot Yoga

This week I got hot and sweaty with the yoga society...

It’s getting cold in Cambridge. As my fingers freeze to my handlebars and my nose turns purple on my cycle ride to lectures each morning, I could think of nothing better than some searing sunshine to perk me up.

So when I heard that there were classes of hot yoga available in Cambridge, I signed up without hesitation. An hour and a half of 105 degree heat! Bliss! Removing layer upon layer of woolly jumpers and donning ‘minimal, cool clothing’ in accordance with the rubric, I couldn’t get to class quickly enough.

When I arrived, the speedo-clad instructor gently told me that, since this was my first time, my main challenge would be just to stay in the room for the full ninety minutes. Pah! I thought – that was precisely what I’d come for! I unrolled my mat directly underneath a glowing heat lamp and embraced the sensation of growing warmth that was suffusing my formerly goose-pimpled body.

Five minutes in, I found myself dripping with sweat and gazing longingly at the frosty conditions outside. The instructor noticed I was struggling. “Bring your focus to the room, to your practice, to your being,” he cooed. Although inside I was dreaming of diving into the frozen-over Cam, I tried to outwardly project a vision of zen as we worked our way through the series of twenty-six postures and focus on the benefits that twisting myself into all sorts of bizarre shapes promised to bring: detoxification, increased vitality and mental clarity, weight loss, and reduced stress – all of which assume a greater effect in high temperatures, so I’m told.

The next sequence involved the delicate balancing act of standing on one foot and holding the other leg high in the air. I looked around the room to see how the others were coping and caught sight of a gorgeously toned man wearing only a pair of shorts, his biceps glistening with sweat, a vision of masculine strength in this posture…

I toppled over. “Focus on yourself alone,” the instructor said softly. “The body betrays the mind’s thoughts. Clear it of clutter, and you will balance better.” No chance of me stealing another glance of those beautiful biceps then, unless I was to risk another embarrassing tumble.

Attempting to close off thoughts of my classmate’s physical attributes and instead put my mind and body through each systematic movement, I began to feel more at ease with the heat, the postures, and myself. The instructor gently told us that we could leave the room when we wished, and whilst earlier on I would have made a run for the door given the opportunity, I stayed lying on the ground a while longer, reluctant to let back in all that “mind clutter” that I had cleared and face the cold reality of the outside world again.

I remembered that gorgeous man on the nearby mat, thinking I would be happy to make an exception and welcome him into my “mind clutter”. But when I saw my beetroot-red face, soggy t-shirt and frizzy hair post-class, I abandoned any hope that he would be willing to do the same. I’d learned my lesson: yoga is a personal experience. It’s about focusing on your own practice and becoming more at ease with yourself, so that you can give your mind and body some well-earned time off. Beautiful as he was, I had to respect my classmate’s right to do that too. Not that that will stop me going back for another class…

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Put A Soc In It!: Cheese Society

A pun-gent post this week...

My experience of a new society this week was absolutely legendairy. Brie-liant, in fact. I had emmenthal amounts of work to do, and it was really starting to get my goat. Ricotta put an end to this, I thought – it’s putting my parmesanity to the test. Roquefortunately, I found a camembetter way to pass my evening.

A Cheese Society is a quince-essentially Cambridge concept: spending the evening in mature company and discussing fraiche ideas is what has earned the institution a reputation for paneering research and inspiring formaggionation.

Despite having stiltons of work to do, I was getting truly cheesed off and my thoughts were beginning to curdle. So to spare myself from going crackers, I took some time off to pursue an activity more suited to my tastes: sampling a variety of fine cheeses.

I arrived feeling lactotally starving, but had to hole-d off from launching in straight awhey so that the President of the Cheese Society could wax lyrical about the different varieties on offer.

First up was a yarg, which, he hallouminated us, has a texture that changes the deeper you delve into the cheese, from creamy under the rind to a crumbly centre, which is rather pungentle and therefore ewe chutneed to handle it Caerphilly.

Before I had a chance to feel blue about this cheese running out, a new one was produced: Lanark Blue, an unpasteurised ewes’ milk cheese which, he assured us, was utterly grate. The maker nose his stuff, it seems – the cheese is hand-made and hand-moulded, and it is one of the first blue ewe’s milk cheeses to be produced since the Middle Ages.

By this point I was feeling rather full, but I was determined to wedge in some more. Cote Hill Yellow, an unpasteurised cows’ milk cheese, has won numerous awards, and judging by the cries of “Holy cow!” and “Gordon rennet!” that my companions were buttering, I was expecting it to be fontinastic  – and let me tell ewe, it was pretty edam delicious.

I feta not try any more, I thought, but the next one looked too gouda to resist. Rind you, port was now being served, and woe is brie, I couldn’t manage both. Quel fromage. My only gorgonzolation was that the society already has plans for another tasting evening in the cheddiary. “Will you gruyere?”asked the President. “I’d be quarking mad to miss it,” I replied. “It’s a Wensleydate,” he smiled. “Don’t you pecorino it,” I answered. I just mozzareally hope it won’t be mascarpostponed…

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Put A Soc In It!: Bobbin Lace-Making

We’re nearing the mid-point of term, and attempting to weave my way in and out of various strands of thought from essay to essay is tying my brain up in knots.

So for a spot of respite this week, I decided to swap these abstract threads for some real ones – threads that, with the help of the Bobbin Lace-Making Society, I could feasibly intertwine to create a thing of beauty.
An exquisite lace creation is like a first-class essay: it deftly weaves together all these various threads in a coherent manner, never stumbling, never veering off course, never going back on itself, and finishes off with a neat conclusion. While we agonise for hours on end in the library, trying to make sense of the subject at hand, the lace-making experience is one of comparative serenity.
To begin with, if you follow the instructions then you won’t go wrong. There are no alternative theories to throw you off course; just a prescribed pattern that works every time. Running out of inspiration is never an issue either: you just pick up another bobbin, begin a new thread and carry on. There’s even a plentiful supply of shortbread to keep you going if you start to yawn while you yarn – this is strenuous work, after all.
Everyone needs an activity that allows us to switch off for a while, to help disentangle the various ideas spinning around in our minds. As I worked my way through half stitches, cloth stitches, twists (and for those feeling ambitious, the cloth stitch AND twist, an almighty amalgamation of the two), I could happily disengage my brain and let methodical movements take over…with only the occasional pinprick to remind me where I was going. And at the end of it all, I was left with a delightful bookmark, without the sweat and toil that goes into academic work. What had begun as a collection of diverse threads had come together to form a beautiful creation. If only essay-writing were that straightforward.
A word of warning, however: lace-making is addictive. Once you’ve started a pattern, you wouldn’t want to give up half way through it, would you? Nevertheless, I find it can complement work rather nicely. I’m currently occupied with a collection of bookmarks so that I won’t lose my place in any of the books I’m referring to in my current essay. I’m convinced that the peace of mind that results from my lace-making will be conducive to a more coherent piece of writing. And if the essay ever does become too mind-boggling, these bookmarks will serve as a neat little reminder of how best to unravel my confused thoughts: just do some more lace-making. Admittedly, I’ve only written two paragraphs so far – but we wouldn’t want it to become incoherent now, would we? It’s time to start another bookmark before I attempt the third, I reckon.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Put A Soc In It!: Clay Pigeon Shooting

This week's escapades - online here.

Stress busters. I’ve tried them all. From lavender bath salts to meditative yoga to compulsive chocolate digestive eating, I’m yet to find the ideal solution.
After being set an essay that threatened to ruin my weekend, desperate times called for desperate measures. Mere stress busting would not do: I needed something that would smash it to smithereens. It was time to call in the clay pigeon shooting club to help me let off a considerable amount of steam.

Lest it be feared that I’m a potential threat to my fellow students, I can assure you that everything was monitored and controlled by excellent coaches, who provided an in-depth safety talk before letting us anywhere near the weapons. Once outside, I was first to have a go. Let me tell you, those guns are powerful machines, and not to be underestimated. I heaved it up on my shoulder, waited for my target to be released, pulled the trigger – and missed by a mile. “Oh, but it feels good, doesn’t it?” the coach said with a grin. A few pathetic attempts later, I finally hit one. My stress had been blown to pieces, and what was left of it lay scattered across the field in front of us. “Atta girl!” the coach called out, giving me a mighty pat on the back.
I took a break to allow others to get their thrills, and noticed my cheek getting sore. One of the more experienced shooters explained that I probably wasn’t “cuddling” my gun properly. I never thought I would hear the words “cuddle” and “gun” in the same sentence, but there you go. On my next turn I clutched the gun close into my cheek and took aim – only to be stopped by my coach to correct my posture. The best stance is, apparently, sticking out your bottom and leaning slightly forward. Not the most ladylike of positions, I’ll admit, but since I hit considerably more targets this time round, it was a concession I was more than happy to make.

Having sorted out my stance, there were certain technical tricks that would also help me. I’m no physics whizz kid, and the thought of calculating the precise point to shoot so that you don’t miss the moving target was enough to get my brain thoroughly muddled. “You’re over-complicating things, my dear,” the coach reassured me. The trick is – so I’m told – to shoot just slightly ahead of the target, so that it will fly into the shot and meet its bitter end.
Imagining the clay pigeon that was now flying across the sky, oblivious to the shot that would soon blast it apart, was in fact that horrible supervisor who had set me the unwelcome essay, I followed the coach’s instructions. As it collided with the shot I had fired and showered down in fragments, I felt a sense of cruel gratification. When I got back to college I still had to write the essay. But I nevertheless smirked with satisfaction knowing, in my mind at least, that I’d taken my revenge.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Put A Soc In It!: Trampolining

My latest exploits can be read about here...

Having established last week that watery depths don’t exactly float my boat, this week I took on the opposite extreme: the dizzying heights of trampolining.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t quite anticipated the preparation my body would require in order to withstand two hours of being bounced in every direction imaginable. Having got a little carried away with the G&Ts the night before, I arrived to the class with my head already spinning, and ten minutes in I was forced to remember what I’d sworn to forget: the kebab I had consumed in the early hours of the morning was threatening to make a rogue reappearance.
Noticing that I had turned a shade of green, our coach took the opportune moment to suggest I let someone else have their turn while he explained to me the secrets of avoiding unwelcome ‘giddy spells’ Thinking it best not to mention that takeaway binges probably aren’t top of the list, I listened attentively. On my next turn, I even pulled off a ‘seat drop’; as one of those ladies who likes the extra cream with their pudding, I had no trouble allowing the weight of my rear end to propel me downwards. After a few attempts I had the move nailed, and the coach looked reasonably impressed.

Now it was time to move on to more ambitious territory. A ‘front drop’ was proffered, but, given my rather delicate state, I asked whether there might be something a little less tough on the tummy. We settled on a ‘back drop’ instead: all I needed to do was jump as high as possible then lean my shoulders back, and I would float gently down to a lying position on the bed. Or something like that.

It might sound crazy, but soon I was actually beginning to enjoy the feeling of flying up and falling back down, only to spring back and repeat it all over again. With each turn I dared bounce that little bit harder, shoot my arms that little bit higher, fall back that little bit further…

Then something staggering happened. The coach told me to repeat exactly the same move, only lean backwards a bit more. Taking him at his word, I bounced back up and, by some flabbergasting gravitational feat, spun all the way around to land on my feet again. I couldn’t tell you how on earth it happened, but I somehow did a somersault. My fellow flyers (one of whom studies quantum mechanics) could probably explain the ins and outs of the gravitational forces that spun me round, but I’d rather not know, lest it lose its magic. Once I’ve retrieved my stomach from the ceiling and the room has stopped spinning, I can’t wait to make the magic happen again.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Put A Soc In It!: Water Polo

My latest instalment! Can be read on the Varsity website here.

I love Sundays. Given the chaotic pace of life at Cambridge, I afford myself the luxury of taking the day at a blissfully slow pace: a long lie-in, catching up on trashy TV, reading the newspapers, enjoying a relaxed roast dinner.

Not so, it seems, for members of the University Water Polo Squad, who sacrifice these
pleasures in favour of a morning of training in the swimming pool. Dragging myself out of bed and lamenting the omnipresence of closed curtains in the rooms of my fellow students, I prepared myself to join in their exploits last weekend.

Things didn’t get off to a winning start. Having not swum since my secondary school days (I prefer to lounge poolside, darling), I had entirely overlooked my lack of suitable attire for pool-based activities. I asked my neighbour’s impartial advice as to whether I could just about get away with one of my less skimpy ensembles, but the response being negative, I was forced to forgo breakfast and make a last-minute dash to John Lewis to scour its swimwear section for something more appropriate. I left the store with a hideously unflattering but positively practical costume, and cycled like the clappers to the sports centre.

I arrived in the nick of time, already red-faced and sweaty, only to discover that today the Varsity team trials were taking place. The captain, seeing the look of horror on my face, reassured me that there would be no pressure and we would take things easy. “Just twenty or so lengths to start off with, girls – no biggie,” she beamed. Half-way through my first, I was ready to faint with hunger, my legs had turned to jelly, and I had unintentionally swallowed copious amounts of water. With much coughing and spluttering, I reverted to doggy paddle. “Don’t worry – your technique’s great!” she reassured me, as I huffed and puffed my way to the shallow end. “It takes a while to get back into the swing of things – you should have seen me when I got back to training after the vac!” Something tells me she was anything but the pathetic paddler I was, longing for the comfort of my floats, woggles and – dare I say it? – armbands.

You see, water polo is played in deep water, and, to add further complication to matters,
involves a very specific style of treading water called ‘egg-beater’, the ins and outs of which got me thoroughly scrambled. Keeping afloat is only part of the battle – there are various manoeuvres, passes, catches and goals to execute, as well as warding off opponents’ attempts to ‘dunk’ you (thankfully, existing team members promised not to submit me to that treatment just yet, though I was given a bonnet with some rather hefty ear protectors to wear in case of any rough play…).

I never thought I would last the whole session, let alone see myself playing a game at the
end of it, but somehow the team’s infectious enthusiasm won me over. My legs might have only been capable of a gentle swish rather than the mighty egg-beating of my teammates, but I managed a couple of passes and even a shot on goal (easily saved, but, as the perpetually smiley captain pointed out, “at least it was on target!”). I returned home with a runny nose, dripping hair and bloodshot eyes, and savoured every last morsel of my roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. As my friends showed up in hall bleary-eyed, I felt a sneaky sense of pride for having spent my morning engaging in such hard-wearing activity whilst they slept off last night’s beers. Though next time, I won’t skip the Weetabix beforehand.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Put A Soc In It!: Lindy Hopping

It's the start of a new academic year, and I'll be writing a weekly blog for Varsity about my various undertakings with different societies in Cambridge. Here's the first instalment (or you can view it online):

New year, new start. Beginning term at Cambridge brings with it a fresh set of resolutions: no more late night takeaway binges, changing the sheets at least every other week, finding a new hobby. Off we trot to the Freshers’ Fair, where we are lured by the enticing array of free chocolates and the endearing eagerness of society representatives, only to return to an inbox filled with details of the next yacht expedition, cheese tasting, or Warhammer tournament.
As an arts student, my technical ineptitude has meant that for the first two years of my degree I still haven’t figured out how to unsubscribe from such emails. Each term, the regular stream of updates from the multitude of societies our University has to offer only served to continually remind me of my inadequacy. So this year, I have resolved to make a real effort and have a go at some of the more under-the-radar activities offered by societies at Cambridge. Provided I don’t unearth hidden talents for which the pursuit allows little time for anything but practice, I’ve agreed to write a blog of my various experiences for Varsity. Who knows, in a few weeks’ time you might well be reading the words of a burgeoning champion pole-vaulter.

My mission began with an evening spent in the company of Cambridge’s Lindy Hoppers, involving an hour-long class followed by an evening of ‘social dancing’, accompanied by a live band. Fortunately the class caters to beginners’ needs, and the emphasis tended more towards having fun than perfecting the steps (or so one of my partners told me, perhaps to make me feel better about my rather haphazard footwork). Fortunately we changed partners regularly, so I didn’t have to feel too bad about my lack of co-ordination impeding the more ambitious dancers in the bunch. It did make for somewhat clammy hand-holds though, which I could have done without when it was my turn to dance with a very cute guy with flippy hair…
Admittedly, I didn’t exactly pick up the moves at lightning speed. In fact, I trod on the aforementioned guy’s toes a number of times, although on the rare occasion that I looked up from my somewhat unsteady feet he seemed to be smiling – and I’d like to think it wasn’t just a sympathetic gesture. In fact, while my technical dancing ability might have been a little lacking, I feel I certainly excelled at the ‘social dancing’ aspect of the evening. The class took place at a pub, and after a couple of pints to calm the nerves I was throwing some absolute killer moves. Flippy hair hottie even asked if I would be coming back next week, so I must have made some sort of impression.
If I were to dismiss the attraction of my fellow Hoppers, however, I’ll confess that I doubt a career in Lindy Hopping is my calling – somehow my knees don’t quite have the buoyancy required for all the bouncing, and my feet just don’t do what I want them to. But I had a good laugh, met some fun people, and would recommend it to anyone who wants to have a bit of a boogie in a non-judgmental, friendly atmosphere. What with the partner changes, live band, and dance moves, it could be an interesting alternative to your standard swap night out. One thing’s for sure: despite all the dance steps, it was a lot less sweaty than most nightclubs in Cambridge.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

What I owe EUYO

Touring with the European Union Youth Orchestra this summer taught me some valuable lessons:  Sleep is a precious thing. Gin is an even more precious thing. And above all, Europe’s young musicians are one of the most precious things possessed by our continent.
EUYO is an organisation like no other. It brings together the finest young musicians of the EU’s 27 member states and offers them the opportunity of living and working together whilst giving concerts across Europe. The range of cultures, backgrounds and circumstances is vast – and yet when they play together, their harmony is magical.
As intern, my role was to help ensure that this well-oiled vessel ran as smoothly as possible. Considering the diversity of the orchestra, this is no mean feat. At dinnertime, the Italians arrive late, the French complain about the quality of the food, the Spanish complain that there is no wine to accompany the food, and the Irish have probably gone straight to the pub and won’t show up at all. One must make sure that the Dutch clarinettist who is allergic to broccoli, haddock and kiwi fruit has been catered for, and that the brass section does not commandeer all the sausages before the rest of the orchestra has had its share. The kitchen staff protest that our musicians are helping themselves to the salad buffet, which is strictly for other hotel guests only. As I attempt to ward off the sneaky pickers, a Portuguese trombone player turns an alarming shade of puce and his face begins to swell up – his acute macadamia nut allergy has been overlooked, and he requires urgent medical attention.

Culinary crises are just the tip of the iceberg: having spent hours drawing up rooming lists for each of the numerous hotels where the orchestra stays during the tour, a French flautist decides that, after a week together, he cannot tolerate the sleep-walking of his Bulgarian bassoonist roommate and asks to change, whilst a Hungarian trumpeter asks if his new-found love interest, a Swedish violinist, might be able to share his room. A few days later, the aforementioned Swede enters the office in tears – it transpires that our Hungarian hunk has moved on to a Czech cellist...
It’s not just the orchestra members who present such challenges. The Romanian ambassador shows up unannounced at a concert and expects tickets not only for himself, but also for his twenty-strong entourage – the seating plan must be rapidly reworked. Then the Belgian consul arrives, and refuses to sit anywhere near the Austrian party, on account of an obscure affair which took place several years ago. No questions are asked; the seating plan is frantically scrubbed out once again, and fresh efforts made to accommodate the change of circumstances. All of a sudden there’s an almighty commotion – the Queen has arrived, and the oboist who was due to greet her has lost his reeds, so a replacement must be found immediately. Ah, and Her Majesty doesn’t get along so well with the Finnish ambassador, so can this also be factored into the seating arrangements? And you haven’t forgotten that the Minister for Foreign Affairs will be arriving ten minutes late? Good. Surely that can’t have been the five minute bell? Why are we flying the Hungarian flag at a concert in Italy? Are we even in Italy? Or was that yesterday’s concert? Keep calm, breathe, and if you can’t smile then at least show your teeth. The show must go on.

And go on it does – invariably to rapturous applause and rave reviews. Considering the obstacles that the orchestra must overcome in order to arrange, fund, and ultimately perform at concerts, it pulls it off sensationally well. To organise the concert, considerable trust must be placed in the hands of agents whose limited English is cause for slight concern (“You want double bass? Send me photo, I make happen”). Finding the money to finance the orchestra demands a delicate balance between relentlessness and charm (“Monsieur Le Benefacteur, we are delighted to present you with a bow tie styled in the design of the EU flag, to remind you of your ongoing commitment to supporting the orchestra…”). As for the logistics of transporting 130 musicians and their instruments across Europe, I have never known walkie-talkie communication between buses on an Autobahn to be so slick (“Come in Bus 4? Bus 4, are you aware that a music stand is balancing precariously on the roof of your vehicle?”) The staff work tirelessly to ensure that the tour runs as smoothly as possible, and I have enormous respect for them all.
As for the players, quite apart from their unparalleled musical talent, EUYO could not be so remarkable without their co-operation and apparently limitless enthusiasm. After three consecutive days of 7am bus loads, someone remembers that a certain Estonian percussionist was last seen skinny dipping at sunrise, so his colleagues use their initiative to embark on a search party to retrieve him (happily he was found, although his trousers are yet to be recovered). A Slovenian horn player leaves his concert dress behind at a hotel, and is rescued by a benevolent but broad Belgian trombone player who can lend his suit and shoes during the pieces in which he does not play (even if they are twice his size). Admittedly, there was the one occasion when it was realised that a Latvian tuba player was last seen in the toilets at a service station 100km ago, as well as the unlucky incident of the horn section’s spirited practising setting off the alarms of a nearby bank, and the unfortunate timing of a local firework extravaganza coinciding with an outdoor chamber concert, but on such a long, expansive tour, it would be ridiculous to expect everything to run without a glitch.

Indeed, in my opinion, the orchestra’s solidarity during these moments of difficulty is what makes EUYO truly exceptional. I can’t pretend that I was the model intern either – attempting to garner half an hour’s sleep before my final 5.30am departure very nearly resulted in a missed flight home. I’d like to think that it wasn’t my own mistake, but rather karma telling me how much I’d miss the hustle and bustle of tour. When I got home, I slept for about a week, then woke up ready for another 7am departure with a bus full of sleepy musicians. At least they snore in tune.