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?