Tag Archives: Asia

#bigstep

Disclaimer: After spending approximately six days on and off writing this latest (and very far behind) blog post, my delightful phone decided to erase the entire thing about 5 minutes before I was ready to publish it.  I think it was my best one yet so I’m really disappointed but here is my attempt at re-writing it! Hope you enjoy – sorry if it’s lazy! I’m over it….

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So the time had finally come for me to leave Hoi An and continue my trip north, flying solo again.  My next stop along the way was Hué and there is only one way to get from Hoi An to Hué properly and that is by motorbike.  Given my dramatically increased tendency for stupid accidents on this trip (and lack of ability to actually ride a motorbike), I decided against hiring my own bike to ride on a long, winding, remote mountain road by myself.  This is where I met Tué, my easy rider and all round legend.  He picked me up from my hostel and simply laughed at my enormous backpack.  I was worried for a split second that it wouldn’t fit on the bike with me as well, then I remembered that the Vietnamese have an unfathomable ability to cram obscene amounts of people and things onto 1 motorbike.  We left Hoi An early in the morning and made for our first stop along the way just outside Da Nang – Marble Mountain.    A beautiful mountain with lots of temples and caves and even more steps.  It is surrounded by shops selling huge marble statues although I’m told the marble is actually imported from China.

After an hour or so wandering around the mountain top and clambering through a few caves, we got back on the wrong side of the road to drive out of Da Nang as today just so happened to be the day half the road was closed for an Iron Man Race.  I was hot on the back of a motorbike yet these people were voluntarily running, biking and swimming in this ridiculous heat.  I became a one woman cheerleading squad on the back of the bike, shouting out for people as we drove past.  They must have thought I was completely bonkers!

Our next stop was a tiny temple on the beach, built in on an old fishing boat.  It is customary for the fishermen to come here each morning to pray and make offerings before heading out on the water for the day.  It was really beautiful and quite quirky too! 

 We left behind the temple to embark on the part of this journey that I was most excited about – The Hái Vân Pass. Made famous by the Top Gear Vietnam Special, this incredible stretch of road is one not to be missed.  Although relatively short compared to what I was expecting, the views and the road itself did not disappoint. Steep hills, hairpin bends and views to die for, literally and metaphorically if you’re not careful. Each time we stopped and locals would ask where I  was from, their response would be “Ahh – Top Gear!” 

Once we made it safely out of the Hái Vân Pass, Tué drove us to a beautiful lagoon with a perfect strip of sand against a mountain backdrop! Tué insisted on a selfie with “his queen” as he had been referring to me as all day!! I could get used to this! 😂 

Picture taking complete, out next stop was lunch – a local variation of Pho – which set me back all of 85p for both of us! 

We carried on our journey through a small fishing village and my chariot dropped me right to the door of my new hostel, The Lantern House Hotel in the ancient city of Hué. I wrote off the rest of the evening in preparation for adventures tomorrow at the now infamous “abandoned water park.” 

Shortly after (a really delicious) lunch I hopped on a bike and headed out to the waterpark.  I ended up getting ever so slightly lost and going in a side entrance but it actually worked in my favour as I managed to get in without having to pay! The water park is sat on the outskirts of town and around a beautiful lake.  It was somewhat eerie walking around the place as there were very few people there save for a bride and her photographer having wedding pictures taken and a few locals! The main attraction is the water dragon, out in the middle of the lake, housing a viewing platform at the top in the dragons mouth and an aquarium underneath. The aquarium has been smashed to pieces and now resembles what can only be described as a room full of broken coffins – it looks so creepy as it was so dark in there even though you can’t see it in the picture.  The only bits of glass that remained in tact was the aquarium tunnel where the fish would obviously swim over the top of you. In tact even though someone has clearly tried very hard to smash it as it is full of bullet holes!! 

Next we found the water slides and the kids pool – surrounded by a now entirely black lazy river rumoured to have crocodiles in it but we didn’t see any… The slides were somewhat questionable but I hoped for the best as I walked all the way down them anyway! 

Suitably creeped out, I headed back into town and treated myself to some of the best Mexican food I have had! Random but totally worth it! 

The following day (OK, afternoon) I dedicated to culture and headed over to the Imperial City, on the banks of The Perfume River.  It was the former imperial city of Vietnam and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I left that afternoon in the bus to Phong Na for some caving adventures! I got off the bus around 11pm and got straight into bed in my clothes to avoid being that dorm room douchebag as everyone else was already asleep! I had grand plans to do absolutely nothing tomorrow apart from chill out and make some plans for the following days! 

Whilst sat having breakfast I bumped into some people I had met back in Nha Trang and they were heading out to Phong Nha Caves in a boat. FOMO kicked in and within 20 minutes I was showered and ready to go.  We cruised down the river and into the cave itself and after about 30 mins we were kicked out of the boat to have a wander round. It was very beautiful but had absolutely nothing on tomorrows adventure! 

The following day we headed out into the Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park to check out the infamous Paradise Cave & Dark Cave. 

Paradise Cave was our first stop after a steep climb up some 300 odd steps. The cave is named so not only because it is so beautiful but because of the constant cool air that comes from it – like natures air conditioning and just what you need after that climb. Sadly I have no photos on my phone from inside the cave but suffice to say it was very beautiful. Our next stop for the day was Dark Cave. The name is as it says on the tin. Very dark, a lot less pretty and full of mud – which is great one one thing – mud baths! We kitted up and ziplined over the lake to get to the cave entrance. A short swim and a fairly dangerous climb over some rocks we arrived at the mud bath! One of the strangest and best experiences ever. As you step down into the water, your feet sink into the mud a good 12 inches and as soon as you let your body weight go, the water floats you up as if you were in the Dead Sea – and you have zero control over it! My new cave companion Ceri & I made sculptures in the walls and got suitably covered from head to toe in mud! On our way out of the cave, we slid down a mud slide and into the “clean” water to rinse off! We then had a kayak to get us back to the water park on the lake where we could zipline into the lake and various other things! 

After a good bucket shower we had a few runs and headed back to our hostel as I was leaving tonight! Ceri and I went for some delicious pizzas and beer before my night bus to Tam Coc.  I was dropped off by the bus at 4am in middle of nowhere and had to find my way to my hostel with no real idea where I was going as it was pitch dark, and i am still lugging round my excessively large backpack.  I walked down a long dark path to my hostel and arrived to find the owner sleeping outside awaiting my arrival.  I dived into bed as I had every intention of getting up at early to do the boat tour I had specifically come to do.  When my alarm went off at 8am, I was met with torrential rain.  Realising today was now a total write off, I switched off my alarm and allowed myself the day to do nothing.  Cabin fever soon set in so I ventured out to buy bus tickets for the morning and realised I lived in actual paradise. 

A lot of hostels in Vietnam offer a “Family Dinner” and although it was expensive I decided to get on board.  For 100,000VND i had more food than I could ever possibly eat and the owner kept insisting on us drinking his entire supply of “happy water” – AKA rice wine.  That stuff has a kick.  Feeling more drunk that I should be i took myself off to bed where i had a fight with the stupid woman in my room who refused to have the air con on despite the fact it was 12038345 degrees in there.  She slept with the remote under her pillow.  I wanted to punch her in her sleep but I resisted….

I left Tam Coc at 6am to head to our next island destination, Cat Ba, a small-ish island near Ha Long Bay.   We were on the bus for a couple of hours when we pulled over to the side of the road, each handed an envelope from the lady bus conductor and told to get off the bus.  We were in the middle of no where with no idea what was going on. I opened the envelop to discover it was full of cash and no explanation. Before I had time to question it further, a local bus pulled alongside us and we were unceremoniously dragged aboard the moving bus with our bags. The local bus drove us into Haiphong with several very near miss crashes where we were again dumped outside a cafe and told to wait for the next bus. No idea of how long or what bus it would be so we just had to wing it.  After multiple coffees, a bus pulled up and we got on hoping for the best. A ferry and another bus later we arrived in Cat Ba and checked into our hostel where we had treated ourselves to a private room with a queen size bed each. We changed and headed out for our first night in Cat Ba – little did we know what we were in for.  I had my first glass of wine in as long as I can remember at the Oasis Bar and then we moved onto to drinking rounds of 10 beers at a time 5,000VND each with the Canadian boys – who still have a lot to answer for….!  The first night ended in a lost pair of flip flops, lectures on littering in the sea (where said flip flops ended up), 1 failed skinny dipping attempt (because we couldn’t find the sea), a new Apple Music subscription thanks to my stolen fingerprint and a #bigstep.

The following morning I woke up with a blinding hangover and a missing pack of Oreos…  Ceri & I had a much needed beach day,  when we eventually found the beach about 15 minutes walk away from our hostel and no more than 5 minutes away from where we gave up looking last night.   Still failing to adult.  Lucky for us the beach was beautiful and pretty much empty.  For a lazy day at the beach it was eventful – Ceri punched a jellyfish and I shouted at a perv who was taking photos of Ceri on the beach.   We also tried unsuccessfully to rescue a dying frog we found.  After all that hard work, we walked back to our hostel to shower and reward ourselves with some more 5,000 VND beers.  The night ended in much the same state as the night before, only this time I was wearing my Hoi An special jumpsuit so required extensive assistance every time I needed a wee – less that ideal when ordering rounds of 10 drinks at a time…. 

Day 3 in Cat Ba was a total write off.  Lucky for us it was pouring with rain so we didn’t feel too guilty about staying in bed for most of the day, apart from venturing out once to eat carbonara.  A day indoors served us well as we had a long day the next day for our Ha Long Bay adventure.

We were picked up early in the morning and taken to our boat – The Red Coral.  We spent the morning cruising through Lan Ha Bay and stopped off in a quiet bay where we were turfed out in our kayaks to go exploring.  We kayaked around the bay, though the cave and out on the “open” ocean.  It was really beautiful and the views were incredible.  After lunch, Ceri and I spent an age jumping off the side of the boat whilst everyone else wandered around on the tiny beaches nearby.  Seems I have lost my ability for the perfect swan dive, but I’ll keep working on it.  We cruised around Ha Long Bay for the afternoon and visited the floating villages.  Our final stop for the day was Monkey Island, which as the name would suggest, has monkeys living there, although they appear to be horribly abused by ignorant tourists forcing them to drink beer out of cans and goodness only knows what else.  We did a spectacularly dangerous hike up to the highest point of the island  and the views were totally worth it.  Thankfully, no one died.  After another long day, we decided to treat ourselves the only way we know how – with our final night out in Cat Ba.  We ate, we drank, we got asked to be TV extras and said our final goodbyes to Oasis Bar.  Their takings will be significantly down now that both us and the Canadians have left.  Next stop – Hanoi

Another bus – ferry – bus combination and we arrived at our hostel in Hanoi – Downtown Vietnam Backpacker Hostel.  Probably one of the best hostels I’ve stayed in yet.  We ventured out for a coffee and ended up bumping into the Canadians (again) and going to get terrible and expensive massages together.  What followed was a surprisingly tame night, especially where this hostel is concerned.  I did, however, get another piercing, on a whim.  Sorry Mum!!

Our first day in Hanoi consisted of a slight detour to the Sheraton to collect my long awaited debit card and then trying to be cultural by going to the Hoa Lo Prison – known historically to be one of the biggest and highest security prisons in Indo-China. It was terrifying to walk through the cells and see where the prisoners were held, and also how they escaped through the sewage tunnels. 

History and culture done for the day, we headed back to the hostel for one of the infamous nights out….or in as it was for the most part. Covered in UV paint and glow stick necklaces we went hard on the happy hour espresso martinis and in true Johnson style we danced on the hostel bar.  This came in extra handy when the barman shouted “The floor is lava!!!” as we were already safe!  After being kicked out of the hostel, we ventured about 50 yards down the road to a club and things got messy in there too.  My Havaiannas broke (again) and I had to be carried home to the hostel because it was dirty outside and the floors were being cleaned inside. 

I woke up in the morning to find that Ceri had got married too – and I didn’t even get invited!!  #Bigstep without me Ceri – I’m disappointed!!

We did some life admin on our final day in Vietnam as we were both super sad to be leaving! We had our final Pho, changed up our money and generally mourned our soon-to-be loss of Vietnam.  We were also exceptionally sad about the fact we had a 23 hour bus ride to Laos ahead of us….

🏮Happiness in Hoi An🏮

So lots of people I’ve met along the way have said “Hoi An is so beautiful.” “You’ll love Hoi An – it’s so pretty.” My goodness were they right. Another torturous night bus dropped us into Hoi An at 7am and we couldn’t check in to our room until mid day – so another morning of sleeping on sun loungers! My hostel, The Sunflower Hotel was a bit of a party hostel which is great when you’re in the mood but God-awful when you’re not! Pay 100,000VND at the bar (the equivalent of £3.40) and it’s as much as you can drink for 2 hours. And believe me – it becomes somewhat of a competition! I don’t think I’ve seen so much carnage in one place! The first night literally disappeared in a blur of cheap beer, terrible music and debating whether or not it would be too indulgent to put a mars bar in the middle of a peanut butter & Nutella bahn mi! 🤷🏽‍♀️ I always did have a sweet tooth but decided to give the mars bar a miss on account of the already impending diabetes from the ladle full of Nutella she had already dumped in! 

The following morning was somewhat of a write off and I woke up minus 1 travel buddy so I headed for my “all you can eat” buffet breakfast. “You’ll lose so much weight when you go travelling” they said. Well I can tell you they lied! Feeling morbidly obese I decided to walk into Hoi An Ancient Town with my new partner in crime! We wandered around the beautiful ancient streets, surrounded by literally thousands of lanterns, one of the many things Hoi An is famous for, and almost being run off the road by tricycles – their drivers shouting “beeeeeeeeppp beeeeeeeeppp” as they go past you as they don’t have horns or bells. It all adds to the charm of the beautiful town. As we strolled along the river and through the night market we decided to hop on a wooden boat for a quick cruise up the river and the chance to release paper lanterns into the river to make all (OK, maybe just one) our wishes come true.  ​

I had fallen in love with this place almost immediately. Such a lovely feel to the place, beautiful architecture, wonderful food, endless tailoring shops and markets, but also sadly rammed with an unfathomably amount of selfie sticks shamelessly attached to Asian tourists of varying origins. Annoying and also somewhat of an obstacle course. So we decided to head back and come back super early in the morning to try to beat the crowds. 

Another obscene buffet breakfast later (on a side note, who knew it was possible to make a perfect omelette with chopsticks?!) Steph and I headed back into town in search of more beautiful things. First stop was to continue my love affair with Vietnamese coffee in a gorgeous coffee shop called CocoBox.  A bit more of a chain than I would normally choose out here but some of the best coffee and views in town.  So much for exploring.  We sat here for hours just watching the world go by, deciding what to do with our next few days and generally just chilling out! 

We strolled through the old town again, I designed and had a bikini made (in less than an hour and for less than £20), we booked a cookery course and a sunset river cruise. I love Hoi An. Our sunset cruise was perfect – a great bunch of people, a somewhat questionable tin roof to sit on, cheap beers and stunning views. What more could you need? We all got on so well we went for a family dinner together afterwards and we’re somewhat proficient in the Vietnamese for “Cheers” by the end of the evening. “Môt. Hai. Ba. Zo!” When you shout it loud enough in a restaurant or bar, you can get into competitions with other tables as to who can be the loudest! We tried – but no one was interested in playing! But thanks Emily & Chris for the tip – I carried that with me from there on in! 🍻

The following morning we embarked on our “Ms Vy’s Cooking Class” – one of the most famous in Hoi An and connected to an excellent and also very famous restaurant, “Morning Glory.” We didn’t eat there but only because we ate so much in the cooking class and tasting sessions. We were given a tour of the local markets, finally finding out what all the weird and wonderful things are that you see but have no idea what they are. Then we headed backwards to the kitchens for some history lessons on the origins of Vietnamese traditional dishes, tasting opportunities for silk worm salad, jellyfish salad, spicy lemongrass frog and my worst nightmare of all, Balut. A boiled, partially developed chicken embryo. So basically half chick, half egg. We’re talking egg yolk, but also feathers, bones and a face. An actual face. The single most stomach churning thing I have ever witnessed in my life. I will try most things and this is a Vietnamese delicacy but just no!! 

Sorry if you’ve just eaten or were about to but this blog is all about the sharing! Our cooking class with Bo, our chef was up next and he was fab. We learned how to make spicy mango salad, Vietnamese BBQ chicken skewers, pork dumplings in vegetable broth and Hoi An Pancakes. The class was excellent and I would highly recommend. I also recommend you don’t eat before as you will be so stuffed when you leave. 

Doing nothing to help the onset of obesity I chilled out the following day, went and had some clothes designed/made by a lovely lady down the road from my hostel, almost got a tattoo (sorry Mum!) but bottled it and booked into another hostel nearer the beach to chill out for a few more days before continuing my journey north. 

My new squad came and collected me from the hostel and it took 2 bikes to cart all my crap out to the beach! A 15 minute drive and we arrive at “Under the Coconut Tree”  – a beautiful complex of bamboo huts in lush surroundings, about 5 minutes walk from An Bang Beach. It was paradise!  

What was meant to be my time to chill out at the beach rapidly descended into chaos on the first night. 2 bottles of rhum and a bottle of vodka later we were swimming totally sans swimwear but completely surrounded by phosphorescence! So beautiful. Thankfully we had left all our stuff back at the hostel so when people started rifling through all our stuff on the beach when we were far enough away to do anything about it –  all we had to do was shout abuse at them because the joke was on them. There was nothing to steal! At what felt like about 3am we walked back to the hostel totally drunk and starving. Thankfully for us we had started drinking super early so it was in fact only 9pm and the kitchen hadn’t shut yet so we all nailed the biggest (and one of the best) burgers I’ve ever had and all passed out.

My one night stay at the beach has now turned into 4. I love this place and never want to leave! My fruit bowl family are ace and this place is so beautiful. The only thing we had to worry about was getting into town for John to get his final suit fitting for this custom made beauty….

The next few days were very lazy indeed – laying on the beach having food and drinks delivered to our sun loungers! I also indulged in an hour long full body Vietnamese massage (foot wash included?) and facial for a princely sum of £6! This is what travelling is all about! 

I spent 10 days in Hoi An in total and happily could have stayed longer. I met some beautiful people who I already have plans to hang out with again in the not too distant future and saw some of my favourite ever things so far in Vietnam! Not only did I make wishes on paper lanterns but friends for life! 💜🧀

Next stop – Hué via the epic Hai Van Pass a la Top Gear Vietnam Special!  🏍

Mui Ne ➡️ Dalat ➡️ Nha Trang

So I finally escaped Saigon after spending far longer there than I anticipated and no longer willing to wait for my new debit card. We hopped on a sleeper bus (in the middle of the day – cue: Nap Time) and set off for the seaside town of Mui Ne, about 2 hours East of Saigon. Being short, sleeper buses are just perfect for me so I had a lovely nap on the way there and got dropped off directly outside our hostel – “Mui Ne Backpacker Village.” Although our room was my ever dreaded “12 bed dorm” it wasn’t too bad, although the aircon didn’t work. We had a nice bar with good food and a pool! Normally I would turn my nose up at a pool when the beach is so close by but I was actually so glad to have a few days where, for once, every item I own isn’t covered in sand. The hostel did all my laundry for me to get rid of the bed bugs – bonus! I headed out to explore the beach – which didn’t take long. It was a bit naff (I still maintain I have been spoilt beyond repair by the beaches in the Philippines!) The town is very much aimed at Russian tourists so a lot of Russian restaurants and really super fancy resorts. Curse the backpacking budget. The next morning was a super early start – 4am to be exact. Jumped in the back of a jeep and drove out to the “White Sand Dunes” of Mui Ne to watch the sunrise. What they don’t tell you is you have to pay an extra £30 for someone to buzz you up to the top of the dunes on an ATV. Backpacker budget fail! So off came the flip flops and I started trekking to the very top of the soft sand dunes. Really very beautiful but less so when you’re dripping with sweat (even at 5am) sand and dust is sticking to every part of you and your calves feel like they’re on fire!! Sadly (or perhaps typically my luck) there was no “sunrise” as such because it was too cloudy so it just sort of got light.  We left the white dunes and headed next for the “Red Sand Dunes” also in Mui Ne.  This time with views of the ocean which helps to distract from the mounds of rubbish left everywhere. Such a shame but so true of so many tourist spots in all the places I’ve visited so far. 

After our jaunt at the sand dunes we headed to the local “Fishing Village” where it was still early enough that we could watch all the fishermen bringing in their catch and selling it on the shore. Such a simple life yet so fascinating to watch it all play out in front of you. They fish from traditional boats that look more like bowls. Generally speaking they are like giant woven baskets but most of the ones we saw here were made of sturdier plastic! All was well until I saw a lady but a whole bowl full of tiny dead sea-horses and it made me really sad. I understand that this is people’s way of life and this is normal for them….but the sea horses! 😔

Our last stop of the day was the aptly named “Fairy Stream.”  An ankle deep stream with a soft red river bed flowing through the bamboo forests, limestone cliffs and out to sea. You can walk all the way up stream, through my mystical rock formations on either side and ever ride an ostrich if you like – I never said it wasn’t random. As a believer in fairies, I can totally see why this stream has earned its name – it really was beautiful! So much adventure for one day and still back in time for breakfast at 9am followed by another well earned nap and day by the pool! The remaining 2 days in Mui Ne disappeared in a spoilt blur of hangovers, multiple stolen phones and too many dramas for my liking. Time to move on again. Next stop – Dalat. 

Another 5 hours on a miserable hot sweaty bus and we arrived in the (thankfully) freezing cold Da Lat. Well, when I say freezing, it was 19 degrees which felt arctic compared to the 37 degrees we had left behind this morning. We ditched our bags and headed out to explore the beautiful French-inspired town. We wandered around the lake, framed by misty mountains. 
We then accidentally stumbled into the Da Lat night market….as if we could have missed it! The place was vast, rammed full of people selling everything imaginable. Fruit and veg I have seen since I left home including grapes, strawberries, broccoli and more avacados than even I could ever eat! It was here I had my first taste of “Vietnamese Pizza,” essentially a rice paper base with scrambled egg, onions and various forms of unidentified shredded meat, topped off with chilli sauce, mayo and all wrapped up.  Really delicious actually, so long as you don’t spend too much time thinking about the unidentified meat…. 

The following day we decided to head to “The Valley of Love,” essentially a type of botanical gardens all themed around love! Heart shaped everything – a heart shaped tunnel of love, a heart shaped maze, heart shaped topiary and beautiful scenery.  We wandered through the maze and thanks to my still excellent navigation skills (Thanks Dad!) we made it through without getting lost. We paddled evil looking swan pedalos round the lake, strolled through the butterfly garden and visited the Japanese Gardens before a massive storm rolled in and we were forced into a taxi in the pouring rain.  

The next day was our grand Da Lat adventure to all its waterfalls.  We set off early in the morning and first stop was a “weasel coffee” plantation. Seriously beautiful scenery and some of the best coffee I have ever tasted, despite the fact it has been shat out by a weasel, if you’ll pardon my French. We then carried on our journey to Elephant Falls, 30km south of Da Lat. We arrived and there was hardly anyone there – just how I like it. With all the rain from the past few days the falls were raging and we got absolutely soaked, but I guess you should expect that when you crawl into a cave behind the falls! 🤔

Time to move on again – so much to see and so little time! Next. Stop was “Pongour Falls,” a further 25km south. Again – they did not disappoint. A beautiful tiered waterfall, 40m high and 100m wide with an amazing pool at the bottom to swim in! You know me – any chance for a swim so I stripped off and went in for a dip! Another storm was making its way back around to us so we jumped back in the car and headed back to the city.  The last stop on our adventure day was “The Crazy House” in Da Lat. Designed by Vietnamese architect Đặng Việt Nga, drawing inspiration from Gaudi, although to me it resembles something of a cross between Dr Seuss, the Flintstones and Dali. We spend ages climbing it’s weird and wonderful “staircases” and exploring all the various different themes rooms you can actually stay in! 

Our time in Da Lat has come to an end so we left and headed a little further north to Nha Trang which was entirely uneventful, full of Russians and generally could have been anywhere in Spain, not Vietnam. One day stop over then onwards to Hoi An….I had the highest of hopes! 🤞🏽

🇻🇳 Good Morning Vietnam 🇻🇳

Country Number 2: Vietnam 

Just a short flight from Manila after an eventful last night in my beloved Philippines, I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (AKA Saigon) for my first taste of Vietnam. First things first – the most mental traffic situation I have ever come across in my life. Now I know people will say this about most big Southeast Asian cities and it’s probably true but this place is really something else! Motorbikes and scooters. As far as the eye can see. On the right side of the road. On the wrong side of the road. On the pavements. Travelling in any which way they please with seemingly no regard for pedestrians or anyone else for that matter. And yet when you step out into the road (after 10 minutes of psyching yourself up to do so…) they just seem to glide around you without hesitation and carry on about their journey. And that, I have learnt, is the key. No hesitation. You have to step out like you own that road and that no one or nothing is going to hit you…not even that bus that is travelling towards you at an alarming speed and blaring his horn at you! 

My first night in the city I got an Uber bike (yes that’s a real thing!!)  across town and was treated to dinner and wine by Dan and his lovely girlfriend on their rooftop terrace with amazing views across the city! Perfect way to start off in a new country! Also pretty ace to catch up with Dan since the last time we saw each other was in the rather less luxurious surroundings of Sierra Leone! I’m staying in a fab little hostel called “Himalaya Phoenix Saigon Hostel” – bang in the backpacker district of Saigon and near to the Ben Thanh Market.  The hostel is like a palace compared to a lot of the hostels I stayed in in the Philippines! Aircon as standard, hot showers, nice and clean and space! Space is nice! Also free breakfast – always a winner!! Especially since it includes coffee! I have developed a lifelong love affair with Vietnamese coffee! 🤷🏽‍♀️ Sue – I take back everything I said before about the condensed milk! I’m converted! 

Deciding to be grown up and sensible (…..) on my first day, we ventured to the “War Remnants Museum” since my knowledge and understanding of the Vietnam War is limited at best. I was definitely not prepared for what I saw and what I learned. Whilst I’m aware it’s likely a very “one sided” account of what happened, it was still pretty harrowing to read about and see photographic journals from throughout the war and how families are still living with the devestating consequences to this day. Suffice to say I left the museum in tears and needed a very strong drink. We headed to the backpacker district and spent the evening watching the craziness of the world go by with a very bizarre glass of ice cold red wine! 🤔

Day 2: Cu Chi Tunnels. Again, my lack of knowledge of the Vietnam war (and lack of understanding of our tour guide’s English) I was going into this one fairly blind.  A fascinating place though – exploring the series of tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the war as means of getting around but also transporting food and supplies all round the country.  The vast network of tunnels were built so small that the US soldiers wouldn’t be able to fit. I mean I’m pretty small and I struggled to fit, and the section of tunnels I crawled through had been made bigger to allow tourists to fit through them. A particularly claustrophobic experience if ever there was one. 

After another school day, we headed back to pack up to leave in the morning for Phu Quoc, a small Vietnamese island off the south coast of Cambodia! 

After a short flight, we were dropped off to yet another fabulous hostel – Q Hao. A beautiful Chinese inspired building with a rooftop terrace and hot tub – perfect for watching the simply stunning sunsets this little island has to offer. Would totally recommend this hostel to anyone heading to the island. Their private rooms are fab too and we paid about $6 a night!! Yes – this is a hostel!! 😌 

Our first night there we found ourselves signed up to one of their twice weekly bar crawls.  When will I learn my lesson with these bar crawls? I always get lured in by the free t-shirts and drinks, dammit!! This one turned out to be no better than the last one I had the misfortune of taking part in in Airlie Beach 3 years ago! 🤦🏽‍♀️ A few drinks in and we’re told to get in “these taxis” to go to the next bar. So we pile in….and our taxi takes us back to the hostel….and charges us 30,000vnd for the pleasure! Marvellous!  No more bar crawl for us then! Probably for the best as it turned out the next morning I woke up with a horrific allergic reaction to something. Still no “official” idea what it was but I have my suspicions on that £1.50 litre-bottle of “gin” I bought in the corner shop! 🤦🏽‍♀️ I shan’t inflict those particular photos on you but suffice to say a trip to the hospital and 2 days in bed with an ice pack and the aircon set to 12 degrees got me back to a ‘just-about functional’ state. Here is us at the bar crawl though before it all went wrong. 

Having wasted 2 whole days on this island, the last day we were on a mission! Rent bikes they said. It’ll be fun they said! Well, turns out I can make a smaller U-turn in my car than I’m prepared to do on a motorbike and it’s not “just like riding a bike.” These things are bloody heavy and they hurt when you fall off them. Another thing I can vouch for! 🤦🏽‍♀️ Without a sat nav or any clue how to get round this island, we set off to try to find “Starfish Beach” on the northern tip of the island.  After 40 minutes of riding in the obscenely hot sun we pulled over to check on our progress towards our desired destination. Excellent. We were driving South. Totally the opposite direction of where we wanted to go. Of course. Alas, we changed our plans and continued South this time aiming for Sao Beach. Somehow, God knows how, we made it and spent the afternoon lazing on the beach and swimming in the sea which was approximately the temperature at which one would normally have a bath! Not refreshing in the slightest but beautiful nonetheless. 

We had an “interesting” ride home (whereby I fell off) but made it back in one piece just in time to explore the night market on our final night, get some Thai rolled ice cream and find some dinner. Yes, dessert before dinner – I’m on holiday – it’s allowed! 😌 We were heading back to Ho Chi Minh in the morning. 

This is where is all started to go wrong, not counting the already unfortunate incident of my skin trying to leave my body! On the way to the airport my favourite hat was either lost or stolen! I’m unsure which as it was on my bag when we left our hostel and gone when we got the airport. I even sent Tiia back to look for it but it would appear either some local or thieving traveller is now wearing my lovely Redskins hat! I hope karma catches up with whoever has it because I cried at the airport when I realised it was gone. Just to make matters worse, this numb nuts then went and left her debit card in the ATM at the airport so had to kiss goodbye to that too! 😑 To console myself, we decided to treat ourselves to a nice meal and went to the very beautiful “Secret Garden” restaurant, recommended by the hostel manager. Fantastic, home cooked Vietnamese food on the 5th floor roof terrace of an otherwise inconspicuous building. The view was almost like that of sitting near the Empire State Building with the full moon perfectly positioned right next to it. The food was the best we’ve had yet in Vietnam….although there hasn’t been much competition. 

Day 5 in Ho Chi Minh and we decided to visit a few more “tourist hotspots” now that we had a bit of extra time here having to wait for my new debit card! 😪 We visited the Reunification Palace, City Hall, The Saigon Central Post Office (essentially a big fancy post office that sells a lot of tourist tat) and the Notre Dame Cathedral. We also had our photo taken with Mr Ho Chi Minh himself….well his statue at least! 😌

We headed back to pack up again for what would be our very ill-fated trip to the Mekong Delta. 

Let me start by saying this: NEVER EVER BOOK A TOUR WITH  A COMPANY CALLED “AN Travel.”  You have been warned.  They are based at Phường Phạm Ngũ Lão in Saigon and this is their shop front. Avoid it like the plague!! 

We set off early for our 2 day trip down to the Mekong Delta. Our first stop was the Vinh Trang Pagoda in My Tho with its beautifully ornate Pagoda surrounded by gorgeous flowers and 3 buddhas, my favourite of which was fat and smiley! ☺️ 

Our next stop was a local honey farm which Dad would have absolutely loved! We got hot toddies with calamansi, tasted the honey and ate “bee pollen” which was a new one on me. Not one I care to try again either if I’m honest! Also made a new friend! 🐍

We then took a quick ride in a dugout canoe on what can only be described as the M25 of the Mekong Delta! Turfed out of that and into our next, even more random mode of transport for what was about 200yards – a horse and cart! What else? ​

We were dropped off to a coconut candy factory – seeing all the steps about how it’s made and getting the all important taste test at the end.  Best described as coconut flavoured toffee I suppose but delicious! Our next stop was for lunch on a very bizarre island with crocodiles you could feed, very large snakes in very small cages, fish you could feed out of bottles and various other random and entirely unnecessary stuff! Here we got our first glimpse of our ever so slightly terrifying tour guide when for seemingly no reason at all lost his temper and flipped an entire table full of food in the middle of the restaurant and stormed out whilst screaming goodness only knows what at the poor waitress. #awkward. Against our better judgement we got back in the boat with him to head to our home stay for the night. We unexpectedly boarded another small boat at sunset and took a 40 minute ride down the river to our lovely waterside “home stay” where we had nice big double beds and a lovely home cooked Vietnamese meal. The following morning we got up at 6am for breakfast and our boat ride back to the “Floating Market” in Can Tho. Definitely not what I was expecting but interesting none the less. Whatever you have for sale that day you hang from a bamboo pole at the front of your boat so people from all around can see what you are selling! We paid a quick visit to a rice noodle factory which was entirely uninteresting then got dropped off at a restaurant for lunch. What started off as a few questions regarding whether or not today’s lunch was included in the cost of the tour ended up going south very quickly. Our tour guide lost his shit at being questioned and threatened me with an iron bar that for reasons unknown he was carrying around with him. When someone stepped in to help me (my hero) and removed said iron bar from him he sprinted off into the back of the restaurant – we assumed regretting what he had done and fleeing the situation. We assumed wrong. Back he came this time with another iron bar and a machete he had so helpfully borrowed from the kitchen! So now we were being threatened and chased by a knife wielding maniac. That was definitely not on the tour brochure. Despite our pleas to the locals to call the police, they refused and simply told us to run or hide. Great top tip! 😑 So with everyone traumatised and hiding in shops and restaurants, we eventually watched our tour guide hop on the back of a motorbike and disappear out of town, hopefully never to be seen again.  Despite my best efforts, I shall never forget the look in his eyes as he stood on front of me with that knife in his hands. Needless to say, everyone is safe and sound if not a little traumatised by what happened. But it just goes to show that in situations like that, people really do come together and I really do have to thank Ali, my hero of the day for stepping in and saving us all.  Our bus driver was not a maniac thankfully so we were driven back to the city for many many “celebrating being alive” drinks. 

After all the drama, our final 2 days in Saigon were spent trying to chill out a bit and hoping we didn’t randomly bump into the maniac. We watched a terrible terrible movie called “The Demon Within” and visited the “Jade Emporor Pagoda” which was very beautiful even if I didn’t have any understanding at all about what was going on.  We tried but failed to go to the History Museum but it was closed. 

Not wanting to spend any more time here, we booked our bus out in the morning, heading north to “Mui Ne.” 

Broken in Boracay 🍹💃🏽

4 days in paradise. Relax, lay on the beach, read my book, take a moment. All things I thought I would be able to do on my last 4 days in the Philippines, on the paradise island that is Boracay. How wrong I was! 🤦🏽‍♀️ After 4 days I was battered and broken, and for those of you who know me, I do not function well on a hangover, let alone an accumulation of 4 days worth of hangovers! 

After yet another interesting (Filipino) journey on buses, planes, boats and very questionable jeeps, I arrived at Frendz Hostel, just a few minutes walk from the legendary White Beach, Boracay. Free beer on arrival! Happy days! Sat chatting to a few people in the hostel and after a few (lot) more beers we decided to head to the beach to see what we could see! Walking out onto the promenade at White Beach (ironic that my phone tried to auto-correct this to “Shite Beach”…) it was like nothing I ever expected.  Imagine the photos you see from google….then add 5000 people with selfie sticks (you can work out the rest) and you get some indication as to my disappointment.  Although the beach is beautiful it is somewhat spoilt and definitely not the paradise I was expecting. 

We watched the sunset and had a really terrible, really overpriced meal on the beach. Most food and drink in Boracay is at least double the price of everywhere else in the Philippines! So much for saving money in my last few days! 😫 I called it a relatively early night after an unfortunate encounter with one of the most “unsavoury” individuals I have ever had the displeasure of meeting, but the less said about that the better! 

The following morning, the girls and I had a delicious (but again, overpriced) Mexican breakfast and spent the day lounging around on White Beach, drinking cocktails, swimming in the slimy, green seaweed infested sea and snoozing! Tough life of a traveller. We headed back to our hostel to get ready to head out for the evening! Even treated ourselves to drying and straightening our hair! 💁🏽 We had a few drinks in the hostel and headed down to the beach to meet the others! A few drinks turned into a lot of drinks and before we knew it we were crammed into the hottest, sweatiest nightclub I have ever been in! But what a night! Epic night in Epic Boracay! 

The next day, with an epic hangover, we jumped in a tricycle and headed up north to Puka Beach on the very northern tip of the island. This was more like it. Still quite busy but a lot less crammed in and back to the perfect white sand and blue waters I have become accustomed to! Cocktails on tap without even having to move from your sun lounger! Pretty good for shopping too! 🙄 

Sadly, the day was a little tainted when aforementioned “unsavoury individual” turned up on our beach! We hopped in a tricycle and headed back to White Beach for dinner! Being the ancient old lady traveller that I am, I had an early night as I was still blindingly hungover from the night before and needed my bed.  

Waking up after 14 hours sleep I felt like an new woman and was ready for anything Boracay had to throw at me. What it did throw I was definitely not expecting! The girls and I (and I really miss these girls already 😱) walked along White Beach (to try to find the “ring man” but that’s a whole other story for another time) and we ended up parking ourselves on some loungers where there just happened to be happy hour! 🤷🏽‍♀️


Just as we got up to leave to go get ready to go out for my last night, a waiter came over with a menu telling us the “gentlemen on the table over there would like to buy you a round of drinks.” This does not happen in real life. Not to me anyway. We wanted to leave but not wanting to be rude we went over to their table to say thanks for the offer but that we were leaving. 4 hours, dinner and about 8 rounds of drinks later, we had to get a tricycle home, having missed the infamous “pasta night” at the hostel. We had agreed to meet the “gentlemen” (one of whine was exceptionally handsome I might add) later and left to go shower and go out. Turns out our hostel was the place to be so we had a pretty ace dance/sing off to “The Lion King” soundtrack, complete with rainsticks and all!  In true Johnson style, I also danced on tables – sorry Mum! 🙄 Another epic night out in Boracay!! So much fun with some really ace girls – thanks for the send off ladies! And thanks Anthony for picking me and up driving me to and from the airport! 😘 

Boracay – it’s been emotional!! 🙋🏽

Cebu & Bohol 🐟🐒

I have left behind my darling Palawan in search of new adventures. Just a hop, skip and a jump across the Sulu Sea….wait that’s a lie. It was a taxi, a plane, a bus, a ferry and a tricycle to get to the tiny island of Bohol, home of the Chocolate Hills and the tarsiers.  Some seriously beautiful views from the plane though!!  

Although only a very fleeting visit it was so worth it. We stayed in a great little traveller hotel in town (Nisa Traveller Hotel) and the staff there were super helpful and organised our trip for us the next day. Thank god for aircon because the next day happened to be the equinox so it was pushing 40 degrees out! Absolutely melting!! We set off around 10am after spending the morning exploring the local supermarkets – one of my favourite holiday activities! 🤷🏽‍♀️ 
First stop of the day was the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary. Only a very tiny part of the sanctuary is open to the public and each morning, the dedicated rangers go in search of the tarsiers which have returned from their night of hunting  insects.  We were lucky enough to see 6 of the tarsiers, sometimes known as “finger monkeys” due to the illegal pet trade selling them and people’s love of tiny animals. When they are born, tarsiers are about the size of your thumb and fully grown they are about the size of an adult fist. They live for about 20-25 years on average. Each of their eyeballs is bigger than their brain but they can’t move their eyes so instead they have the ability to move their heads almost 360 degrees! They are extremely territorial animals and will fight to defend their territory but they are also extremely emotional animals. Skip to the next paragraph if you’re an animal lover as this is where it gets sad. Tarsiers, when kept in captivity or as pets, have a tendency to suffer from severe depression and are known to frequently commit suicide – by way of bashing their heads against a tree until they die. Honestly one of the most heartbreaking facts I think I’ve ever learned about any animal! But on a happier note, they are amazingly well looked after here, compared to some of the other places where they are “kept” in the Philippines. 

After leaving the tarsiers, we wound our way through the “Man Made Forest” of Loboc, named as such because it was planted to help reverse the effects of deforestation and help stabilise the land. The area was planted with mahogany trees and are government protected. We stopped for lunch at the unfathomably tourist-riddled Loboc River Floating Restaurant where for an hour or so we cruised up and down the river with a buffet lunch and various “entertainment” along the way, including the traditional Filipino stick dancing known as “tinikling” – whereby bamboo poles are slid along the ground basically looking like they are trying to break the dancers ankles as they try to avoid them! 😂 ​​​

 

Grateful to leave this horrendous tourist trap, we set off again towards the Chocolate Hills. There are many legends as to how the Chocolate Hills came about….one of which being a giant who fell in love with a mortal and kept her in the palm of his hand. When she died he cried so much and his tears formed the hills we now see today. Another giant related legend is that of 2 giants who fought and threw rocks at each other until they forgot why they were fighting, became friends and left all their mess behind.  The reality is in fact believed to be ancient coral deposits from when the land was once under the sea….or something like that…..🤔

Loads have people have said they are massively over rated and just a bit boring – but I really loved it here. There was something peaceful about sitting and looking out over such a unique landscape, contemplating the many myths and legends about how or why they came to be. Sadly, the 40degree heat and quite adament tour guide meant we had to leave again fairly swiftly. 

The rest of the day was spent winding our way back to the city via the oldest church in the Philippines of its type – the Baclayon Church – the oldest coral stone church in the region dating back to 1727. Very dilapidated and in the process of a full restoration but beautiful nonetheless.

The following morning we got the ferry back to Cebu and a free shuttle bus to the shopping mall because it was free….why else! 😂 We were dropped at the “traveller centre” of the mall where they have a luggage store, showered, free wifi and charging points. Genius!! After a bit of a wander round we headed for the entirely questionable “bus station” and were shoved on a bus that we could only hope was travelling where we wanted to go – Moalboal. After another 3 hours of spine-shattering, burning plastic scented torturous bus travel and another tricycle, we arrived at our hostel, Chief Mau. The location was a little random but the hostel was lovely and had a really great vibe. We came here to chill out for a few days and that was mostly what we did. The beaches weren’t great but then we have been really spoilt elsewhere in the Philippines. Against our better judgement we signed up for the canyoneering knowing full well it could go disastrously wrong considering how clumsy Tiia & I are! 🤦🏽‍♀️ The good news is we survived 5, 7, 8, 10, 12 and (a questionable) 15metre waterfall jumps, being pushed off backwards and headfirst on one occasion! We ended up at the truly beautiful and unbelievably blue Kawasan Falls. Another proper bucket list tick here because we were able to swim into and behind the waterfall! Hard work against the current but totally worth it. 

My final morning in Moalboal we headed down to the pier to swim with the sardines – the main thing Moalboal is known for. They swim in massive shoals just off the pier and it really is quite something to swim through them. No pictures as obviously phone isn’t waterproof but will upload some underwater snaps in due course (probably never!) 

So this concludes my marginally educational blog post for the time being. Standby for the next instalment of “4 days in Boracay!” and googling “how to unpickle ones liver.” 🤦🏽‍♀️

Paradise in Palawan

So I’ve been a little off the grid for the past week or so be it due to the fact I have been on a boat cruising the the Bacuit Archipeligo in Northern Palawan, staying in a hostel with no electricity except for between 6pm and midnight or the simple fact that numb nuts dropped her phone in the sea on day one of said island hopping adventures! 🤦🏽‍♀️ Thankfully I’m in Asia so bucket loads of rice are on hand and I’m, for the most part, back online….ish. A 5 day digital detox is really quite liberating! The only reason I got so excited about being able to share pictures is because I want everyone to see what I have seen and realise just how stunningly beautiful these islands are! I have been so spoilt this past week! 

I left Manila to fly south to Coron with the much criticised Cebu Pacific airline. They were actually great – no delays, no issues so can’t be too annoyed at paying £40 odd for my flight including 20kg of luggage which is already tortuous to carry around every where I go! I would legitimately have been happy if they had lost it! 😂 I arrived in Coron and had that horrific “Inbetweeners” movie moment of pulling up outside a shockingly shit looking hostel and being told this was where I was staying. Note to self – when booking hostels, check google earth before agreeing that it seems like a really great price for a private room. For the next 2 nights I now lived in what I can only describe as a swamp/rubbish dump/entirely unsafe- looking paper house on stilts.  The hostel itself, RB Transient, turned out to be fine in the grand scheme of things but the walk to get to it was what made me want to cry every time I had to do it. I was also less of a fan of the giant cockroach that had taken up residence on the wall. Give me Lucky the flea riddled cat any day! (Update – Lucky now has her flea collar!) 

Day 1 in Coron I decided to do an island hopping tour which would take me to the famous Kayangan Lake (allegedly the cleanest lake in Asia) Twin Lagoon, Coral Gardens, Siete Pecados, Atwayan Beach, Smith Beach and Hidden Lagoon. The snorkelling at the Coral Gardens was some of the best I have ever seen. So colourful and full of fish! And I saw Nemo! Perfect way to start the day!  We cruised around some more on our bangkha before mooring up alongside a rickety old wooden walkway clinging precariously to the jagged cliffs.  We off loaded and embarked on a short but surprisingly tough trek almost directly up and over the cliffs.  There below us was the glimmer of turquoise green through the trees – Kayangan Lake. Dubbed the cleanest lake in Asia and perfect for a swim after a hike in the Philippine sun! Crystal clear waters, jagged limestone cliffs, bamboo rafts. Sadly just a few too many tourists for my liking but unavoidable! Also no photos to share as I left my phone on the boat! If only I was always that sensible! 😑 

My second day in Coron I clearly decided I had not had enough sun (or had had too much and wasn’t thinking straight) and decided to walk to the top of Mount Tapyas. 700 odd steps to the top which I now find out is only 190m above sea level. Let me tell you, in 35 degree heat and flip flops it felt like 10 times that! And I didn’t even have my Fitbit on! What a waste. The view from the top, however was far from a waste. Despite a storm threatening all afternoon, I made it to the top before the rain and it really was beautiful. I was also a fan of Coron’s attempt at their own Hollywood sign! 

At 5pm I had to head to the TAO Office in town for the briefing before my 5-day boat trip to El Nido left in the morning. I sat down at the table with the others and knew I had made the right decision in booking this trip. A rum cocktail appeared in front of me as if by magic. 🙌🏼 We were briefed and preordered our booze for the week which proved to be way more stressful than it needed to be! First world problems! 

At 8am the next morning we arrived at the Port Authority to start our 220km, 5 day, 4 night cruise through paradise to El Nido on their custom built TAO Bangkha boat.  I literally couldn’t have dreamt how amazing this 5 days would be! We cruised around islands, we snorkelled, we ate, we swam, we kayaked, we ate some more, we drank (a lot), we laughed, we celebrated an engagement, we ate and drank even more. We were quite literally in paradise. Our on board chef “Magic Mike” cooked us breakfast, lunch and dinner every day along with copious amounts of snacks and iced tea. The food was a combination of “Filipino Power” also known as rice and fresh caught jack fish & sweet lips (or whatever other fish they could catch or buy from local fisherman) pumpkin & coconut curry and cucumber salads. On one day we caught a tuna fishing off the back of the boat and within less than 10 minutes we had the freshest tuna sashimi you could possible ever hope to eat.  Each night we were lead to an incredible TAO base camp where we slept in beautifully hand crafted “tuka huts” on the beach. Whilst we washed away the days stresses with a refreshingly cold bucket shower, the TAO Lost Boys were setting up our beds and mosquito nets for us. 5* luxury beach accommodation just does not get better than this if you ask me. This is an island we stopped off at on the day my phone first came out of the rice again. Just to give you an idea of the type of paradise I’m talking about. 😍

I fell in love with each island we visited – each time thinking there was no way the TAO Lost Boys would be able to better it the next night – and each night we were treated to an island base camp more beautiful than the last! On our 3rd night we stayed at the TAO main base camp. It is actually mainland Palawan but inaccessible by road and so secluded you just wouldn’t know. This is also the location of their TAO farm, where they grow all their own organic produce which is used for all our meals. They have pigs, ducks, chickens, an organic vegetable garden, their own rice paddy, palm trees with hundreds of coconuts. This place is entirely self sufficient. But not only this this, they make products to sell also! Hand pressed virgin coconut oil, coconut and lemon grass shampoo and soap, clothes, jewellery. This place and this company are just so incredible there are no words. A travel company yes, but so much more than that. Their TAO Foundation builds school for local communities. They provide education regarding sustainable fishing and farming techniques. They offered humanitarian support following Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013 – providing over 150 fishing boats to replace those lost in the storm, food and building materials. They encourage local children to keep the beaches clean with the promise of a new pair of slippers (flipflops). They provide jobs for the family members of the Tao Lost Boys sewing the bed sheets and pillow cases, massage therapy and sewing the TAO uniforms. I can vouch for how amazing the massages are – I had 2! I could go on for days about how amazing Tao are but instead I shall just urge you to book a flight and come and experience it for yourself! 

After 5 days we arrived in El Nido and desperate for anything that wasn’t fish or rice, we arranged to met for dinner at Trattoria Altrove in the town to treat ourselves to pizza. Never in my life has pizza and wine felt like such a luxury. The following day was spent by the beach recovering before getting the bus to Port Barton – but she has a special place in my heart so will get her very own blog post! 💚