Tag Archives: backpacking

🇲🇲 My Oh Myanmar! ðŸ‡²ðŸ‡²

After much deliberation, much procrastination, not very much planning and definitely not very much organisation, we managed to book last minute flights to Myanmar. Before this trip, I knew I wanted to go but had only ever met one person who had been before so I was going in a bit blind but, like everything else on this trip, I was just going to hope for the best. I have met a lot of people along the way who have been recently and said it was one of their favourite places so I simply couldn’t miss it. We sorted our online Visa’s for 50USD – the first curve ball. It was way more expensive than I had anticipated but isn’t it always? We managed to get our return flights from Bangkok for around £60 so we clawed some money back there. The flight is only an hour from Bangkok – easy! We arrived in Yangon in the evening and headed straight to our hostel, Little Monkey Hostel, in downtown Yangon. Our taxi driver from the airport was ace – he taught us all of our basics for speaking Burmese. It’s not an easy language to pick up and the notes I wrote in my phone to help me remember it all, on reflection, are hilarious. I’m convinced I am terrible at it because whenever I attempt to say anything they just laugh! We settled into our hostel and got an early night so we could make the most of our time here. Bad start. Bed bugs. Again. Despite the sleeping tablet I had taken I got woken up by them and when I got out of my bed I could literally see them crawling. Absolutely vile. There was no one around to do anything about it so I sat in a chair outside the room for a good 3 hours trying not to shred off my skin until someone came back to the reception. They moved us rooms and called in pest control however subsequent research suggests this may not be the last time this happens in Myanmar – deep joy! 😒

Our first day we spent getting a feel for the area and visiting the Bogyoke Aung Sang Market. The architecture is beautiful – French colonial inspired buildings with ornate balconies, bright colours and lots of hustle and bustle. The first morning I watched an old lady on her 4th floor balcony ringing a bell attached to a long string. I then watched the street vendor below spring into action preparing food which was then attached to the long string in a bag and the lady hoisted up her breakfast. The ultimate delivery service for street food. The market was unlike any others I have visited on this trip. Never have I seen so much gold and gems in all my life. It would seem Myanmar is pretty rich in jade, rubies and gold. Every shape, size, colour! I’m told that a lot of the jade in China is actually from Myanmar – not China as we are all lead to believe. Another thing it is rich in is bettel – a somewhat less desirable item, for me anyway. The incessant “hawking” and spitting on the street makes me die inside a little each time I see/hear it and the streets are splattered red everywhere you look. I saw it in the Philippines where the mountain guides used it to give them an energy “boost” but it seems to be a lot more common here and is seemingly very addictive and also bad for you. I found out the hard way what goes into it. 🤦🏽‍♀️ Whilst walking home from the market I stopped to watch a lady rolling the leaves. From what I could gather the leaf was spread with a white paste – lime paste, then a sprinkling of spices (cardamom or cloves), chewing tobacco, a bettel nut and a luminous green looking drop of peppermint oil. It’s then all rolled up into a little parcel. Then she handed it to me. I didn’t know what to do. I panicked and didn’t want to seem rude since she had gone to the trouble of making it…..so I put it in my mouth. First fail. I tried to chew. Second fail. A group of locals sat in a truck nearby thought this was hilarious! The nut was literally impossible to chew but as I bit through the leaf all the other contents spilled out into my mouth in a particularly unpleasant manner. The taste wasn’t actually that offensive but I was trying so hard not to gag and also didn’t want to be spitting a gob full of slop into the street. So I did my best to thank the lady and walked off, trying not to be sick, until I could find somewhere to spit this stuff. I’m aware that it seriously stains your teeth bright red and as you probably know I’m a little precious about my teeth so I needed to get this stuff out ASAP! A skip. Classy as ever. Not an experience I care to repeat, even out of politeness!​ ​

​That evening we decided to venture to the famous Shwedagon Pagoda for sunset. We missed the sunset due to the unbelievable traffic in this city but that didn’t deter us. The pagoda was every bit as spectacular as I had hoped. 105 metres tall, covered from top to bottom in gold, crowned with a 74 carat diamond and housing 8 hairs from the 4th Buddha. It is said to be the most sacred Buddhist stupa in all of Myanmar and dates back to between the 6th & 10th Century.  The following day we decided to make our way to The Golden Rock and “keep it local” by getting only local transportation and not a taxi for $100. We cheated the first bit by getting a taxi to the bus station and it was truly terrifying when we arrived. As we pulled into the vast bus station, we were literally surrounded by men trying to sell us bus tickets.  It was like something out of the Walking Dead – men with what looked like blood stained teeth (from the bettel) clawing away at the car shouting and yelling!  We were the only white people to be seen and they were literally grabbing hold of the car as we drove past. We were so scared to get out but when we eventually did we had no trouble at all getting a bus ticket to where we needed to go. A couple of hours on a relatively decent bus and we arrived in the small town of Kinpun and we were directed to a truck station over the road for our lift up to the top of the mountain. We had intended on walking up but the bus took so long to get there that we just didn’t have time so truck stop it was. Nothing could have prepared us for what was to come. 45 of us were crammed into the back of a pick up truck with small wooden benches. There was barely room to move or even breathe and it was pouring with rain. 45 minutes of pouring rain, ridiculously winding roads, people spitting bettel and throwing up in bags, we arrived at the top, paid out fee to get to the pagoda and carried on walking to the top. Complete cloud cover! Couldn’t see a thing. Wonderful. We had just spent near on 7 hours getting here and couldn’t see a bastard thing! Luckily for us, someone was looking out for us and for about 10 minutes, the sun came out and burned away all the clouds and we had a tiny window with some incredible views! Legend has it that the Golden Rock is held in its precarious position by a single strand of Buddha’s hair, having been brought to its current location by a boat, which itself turned to stone and remains nearby, now known at the Kyaukthaban Pagoda, meaning Stone Boat Stupa.After all the effort we went to to get here we had very little time before we had to get the terror truck back down the hill to get our bus back to Yangon. It worked out much cheaper getting local public transport but for the amount of time I almost wish we had just got a taxi!! Our final day in Yangon we paid a visit to the National Museum. On our walk there we got absolutely drenched in the monsoon rains and also a tidal wave from a passing bus. I had to physically wring out my trousers and bra! 🤦🏽‍♀️ Needless to say the walk around the air conditioned museum was a little chilly and it was very difficult to understand what everything was because there was nothing in English. Our final Yangon stop was a quick visit to the Chauk-Htat-Gyi Reclining Buddha. We headed back to our terrifying bus station again to head up north to our next destination, Ngapali Beach. 

Side note: Always do your transport research before leaving.

Our bus to Ngapali Beach was relatively painless although chucking it down with rain again as seems to be norm now every time we have to get off a bus in the middle of the night!! We got to our very questionable hotel which equated to a double bed crammed into a shoebox sized room made of paper. The weather for the whole time we were there was pretty awful so we didn’t get much time at the beach. Although it was beautiful, it was also incredibly spoilt by the sheer amount of litter which is so typical of so many places in Asia. The artwork from the tiny crabs on the beach definitely helped make up for it though! Our bus journey away from the beach to Bagan was somewhat less simple. We had failed to research enough beforehand to realise that the easiest way to get from Ngapali to Bagan is to go back via Yangon. Epic fail. Determined not to retrace our steps and waste time we went local again. It started off with a minivan for 5 hours which was fine. Then we boarded the death bus at Pyay for the remaining 12 hours of our journey. “Wow – that must have been a long way” I hear you say. Negative. It was about 167 miles in total and took us 17 hours. 12 of which we were sat on wooden benches with our feet on giant bags of crops. The driver looked to be about 12 (at best) and was completely off his face on bettel. The most alarming thing was watching him pray before we set off. I definitely felt like I should have been praying too – to anyone who would listen! What followed was a the longest, most painful and uncomfortable journey ever! More hawking and spitting, more bettel, more throwing up in bags, more winding mountain roads, more middle of the night stop offs, more horrific squat toilet stops and again being unceremoniously dumped in the middle of nowhere (allegedly a “bus station”) in the middle of the night by ourselves! When we finally made it to our hotel it was like we had hit the absolute jackpot. Something I have dearly missed since the day I left home. The holy grail of hotel rooms. A bath!!! Never in my life have I been more excited for a bath!! Even if it was sized for hobbits. My alarm went off at 4:15am and we were both so excited we leapt out of bed to get ready. We collected our E-bikes and headed out to find a good spot to watch the sunrise! We headed to one particular temple that we had in mind, Law Ka Ou Shuang, and when we got there we found it was closed and all locked up! Not only that but there was the most horrific noise coming from inside. Dogs fighting. We backed off to leave only to realise we were being followed by one of the dogs, who was carrying a very tiny, now very dead kitten in its mouth! It was so sad! On looking back we realised they had killed another tiny kitten inside. We were traumatised! Not such a great start but nothing was going to ruin our day, also Ceri’s birthday! We headed across the road to the next nearest Pagoda and climbed up the steep brick steps to the top. There was a little ledge you could just about sit on to watch the sun rise over the incredible planes. It was beyond spectacular. No hot air balloons as it is out of season here now but still one of the most stunning places I have ever seen. We sat for at least an hour just watching and listening while the rest of the world woke up. Once the sun was up we set out on our days mission to visit as many pagodas as we could manage. We didn’t get far. In fact, we got about 200 yards to the Shwesandaw Pagoda. We climbed up its steep steps and again, the view from the top was incredible. A lot of the larger pagodas, this one included, are currently covered in bamboo scaffolding. This is for restoration work to be carried out in many of the temples following a 6.9 Richter scale earthquake back in 2016! It’s actually amazing how well these pagodas have faired, considering some of them date back to the 11th century. There was once 10,000 pagodas in Bagan and surrounding areas. Now, some 2000 remain but it certainly looks more. They are literally everywhere. Some tiny, hidden behind trees or bushes and other so grand they can be seen from miles away. There are also a few brilliant white temples, one of which we visited near the Kyat Kan Monastery.  I spoke to a monk for ages at this particular white temple and he told me that once upon a time, all the temples were white, and that as they have aged, the lime stone plaster has been worn away, leaving behind the red bricks you see on most of the pagodas today. Apparently less than 10 white temples remain. This one appeared to have been recently renovated so it was practically pristine and stood out so brilliantly against the blue sky. It sort of reminded me of Santorini – not that I’ve been, but it’s high up the bucket list! Whilst at the Shwesandaw Pagoda, we met a lovely local kid named Zar Zar. He spoke to us for a while to practise his English and showed us into a nearby pagoda which had a huge reclining Buddha – something which we totally would have missed otherwise. What started off as a quick exchange of “Hello, where are you from?” resulted in a whole crib sheet of handwritten Burmese phrases, our faces being painted with the locally produced sunscreen and an invitation for lunch tomorrow with his family. I love this country!! We carried on about our day, driving through the countryside, finding pagodas and temples and even stumbled across a “weather spoons” where we stopped for lunch of a traditional pickled tea leaf salad. Full up from lunch we headed back to our hotel for a quick afternoon nap, ready to head out again for sunset. We drove out to the Hsin Phyu Shin Monastic Complex for sunset and we were lucky enough to have the whole roof terrace to ourselves. It took us a while to find it – E-Bikes and sandy roads are not the best combination and the hidden staircase was somewhat treacherous but it was definitely worth it. Despite being absolutely shattered from our 4am wake up call, our first day in Bagan was a success. Our second Bagan sunrise we watched from Maha Gudi Temple – we were escorted there by a local as we clearly looked very lost trying to get where we actually wanted to go. Again, the view was spectacular, although this time there were a lot more (very talkative) tourists which sort of spoilt it a little. And there is always one person that takes up half the viewing platform with their flipping camera tripod! We headed straight back to our hotel after sunrise this morning as we had a very important lunch date with Zar Zar and his family. We met him at the Shwesandaw Pagoda at 11am as promised. He had been there since sunrise selling postcards to make money for his family. He hopped on the back of Ceri’s bike and we drove the short distance to his home, a small but very beautiful bamboo house on stilts with a small shop front outside. We were given the warmest welcome by his parents who insisted we called them Mama and Papa – our Bagan family. We were treated to an enormous bowl of rice, chicken, noodles, peanuts, cucumber and hot Chinese tea. It was absolutely delicious, even if there was enough to feed a small army! Mama applied thanaka, a natural local sunscreen made from tree bark mixed with water. We were shown family photos, taught about meditating, shown how Papa makes his bamboo pots and given gifts beyond what we could ever imagine. They were truly one of the most wonderful families I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. If you ever go to Bagan, please let me know as I would love for you to meet them and takes gifts for them from me! On top of all that, we were invited back for dinner that evening. We spent the afternoon riding around again with Zar Zar in tow and watched the sunset at South Guni Temple. The sunset was infinitely better tonight than it was last night and we had a beautiful spot for it. I also got the chance to hang out with my favourite, incredibly fierce and stunningly beautiful souvenir saleswoman! For 17 years old she was amazingly talented at sales pitches and sweet talking people into buy what she had on offer. If I had been “on holiday” I would have bought every single thing she had!! Dinner was another mammoth feast followed by a quite frankly unbelievably strong massage from Mama. Who knew such a tiny woman could be like the Hulk when it comes to a massage. I felt broken after a few minutes! We left for our hotel full of food and full of gifts again and a promise to return again tomorrow morning for one final visit before we left. Our final sunrise was somewhat less successful than the others. Ceri’s back tyre all but came off on the way so we abandoned the bike at the side of the road and she hopped on my bike so we could carry on to our chosen temple. We got to the temple and despite it being recommended to us for a good sunrise, it just wasn’t high enough to be able to see over the trees, even after our (probably illegal) Spidey climbing adventure! We missed sunrise and then had to wait for the bike to be fixed. The mechanic turned up with some glue, elastic bands, scissors and plastic string. I sat and watched him poke elastic bands and plastic string into the puncture with a pair of scissors, seemingly ignoring the fact that they entire tyre was off the wheel. He then proceeded to glue the tyre back in place before pumping it up again and hoping for the best! Thank god we only had this bike for half a day as that thing was lethal. We had totally missed sunrise at this point so we headed on to pick up Zar Zar again and go and visit some more temples! We managed Bulethi Temple, Htilominlo Temple, Alodawpye Temple (which on the face of it looked to be one of the oldest & most beautiful we had seen but photos were banned) and the Sulemani Temple all before lunchtime. We loved ragging those little E-bikes through the fields and wanted so badly to stay longer but our 3 weeks in Myanmar just isn’t enough and time was pressing us to move onto our next destination, Mandalay. We dropped off Zar Zar and said our goodbyes but he and his Father insisted on escorting us home, so they drove with us back to our hotel where we got our bus. The bus to Mandalay was a relatively painless 6 hours and we got dropped off right outside our hotel – Venus Hotel. Another questionable hotel but after the last few days we were so knackered we didn’t care! On our first day we got bike taxi’s out to Mandalay Hill and agreed we would climb rather than drive to the top! Yet again I got the shit helmet which when I took it off and placed it on the bike seat, rolled off and straight under the wheels of a bus and literally exploded! The taxi driver was not happy but I was just glad my head wasn’t in it!!! We started our climb up to the top of the hill in the ridiculous heat and each time we thought we were at the top, there were yet more stairs! The signs kept saying “Summit – This Way” when what they should have said was “LOL – you’re not even close yet!!” 😩 After considerably longer than we anticipated we reached the top and the views over the Ayrewaddy River were worth the climb but after a lot of travelling over the past few days we were exhausted. We started the walk back down and decided to visit Kuthodaw Pagoda. A series of 1774 individual white pagodas, each containing 1 marble slab engraved with the teachings of Buddha, thus making it the largest book in the world. I do love a good book! 😍Day 2 in Mandalay turned out to be pretty intense. We met a guy in the street (yes, it is as dodgy as it sounds) named Win Win who offered to take us on a tour of the city on his bike for the day. For some reason, we agreed to go along for the day, 3 up on a bike to go and see the sights.  It was a great day and we ticked loads off the list – Mahamuni Buddha Temple: seeing the 1200 monks collecting their meal for the day at the Mahaganhayon Monastery:  Lay Htat Gyi, built by King Nyaung Yan in A.D 963:  Daw Gyap Pagoda Complex:  Tawagu Pagoda:  U Min Thonze Cave Pagoda in Sagaing comprising of 45 Buddha images in a crescent-shaped colonnade carved into the hillsideand finishing off our day wandering across the world famous U Bein Bridge, the longest and oldest teak wood bridge in the world: We arrived back at our hostel at around 6pm with very numb bums and generally pretty knackered from being crushed on a bike all day! Anyone would think the sensible thing to do is get a good night sleep and start again tomorrow on the next adventure. Nope – not us! We set our alarms for 2am so that we could get up and walk to Mandalay Train Station to get our 4am train to Hsipaw. Wandering the streets of Mandalay at 3am with your backpacks on is probably not all that advisable. We boarded our train in plenty of time and got comfy in our upper class carriage. We decided to splash out on this train journey and go for upper class as we would be on the train for a good 12 hours! We spent all of 3500kyats each on our tickets which equates to less than £2. If only all epic train journeys were this cheap! Our train left the station at 4am on the dot and we gently chugged out of Mandalay with the trains horn screaming every few seconds! We carved our way through the beautiful countryside being somewhat flung around by the extremely rocky journey. We made a few stops along the way, got lunch delivered through the window at Pyin Oo Lwin and made our way to the journey highlight, the Goktiek Viaduct. I had tried my hardest to smile sweetly at the driver and see if I could get a ride up front but a load of locals had already beaten me to it so I had to stay out. When we arrived in Hsipaw we had the luxury of a free transfer to our hotel, Mr Charles Hotel. From here we would pick up the first of our 2 treks. We left early in the morning walking directly from our hostel out through the rice paddies, vegetable farms, fields and villages. This particular trek was mostly uphill on the first day then back down again on the second day. Our lunch stop after a pretty tough climb gave us the most beautiful views. As we sat admiring the view and eating tea leaf salad, a local kid came absolutely flying down the hill on his motorbike, skidded into a fairly dangerous U-turn and came back up the hill whilst all the other locals laughed hysterically. It turns out he had no brakes on his bike and this was the only way he could actually stop his bike when going down hill. After 8 hours and 20km we finally arrived at our beautiful home-stay for the night in a fairly large, remote village.  We had bucket showers then set off around to the village to meet some of the locals.  We had a delicious dinner, a few beers and a really lovely evening, all in preparation for another day of trekking tomorrow.  We set off early on a mostly downhill trek back to Hsipaw.  We picked up a few stragglers along the way but no one minded – i wanted to take him home with us.  We finished up at the beautiful Nam Hu Nwe Waterfall where we had lunch of sticky noodle soup  and what are essentially pork scratchings.  I was not put off my lunch, despite being nominated to climb the waterfall for the sole purpose of taking a “full monty” photo of the boys.  Sorry ladies – it was a Polaroid so i have no evidence of it, unless of course the boys decide to share!  We got back to our hostel with enough time for a quick shower before hopping on a bus to Kalaw – our next trekking destination.  We arrived in Kalaw at 2am yet again in the pouring rain and got totally ripped off by a taxi driver to our hotel.  We checked in and went straight to bed with every intention of getting up in the morning to start our second 2 day trek.  When our alarms went off at 7:30, Ceri and I both rolled over, took one look at eachother and went back to sleep.  Trekking could wait for another day!  We eventually got up and ventured out for lunch, following the ever terrible “MapsMe.”  Thanks to that shockingly shite app, we ended up accidentally wandering into a bloody Army barracks.  Only us.  As we tried to make our retreat a very nice Army man came out, thankfully he was laughing at us.  We apologised and told him we were leaving, having got lost on our way to lunch.  He told us he knew a shortcut and before we knew it we were climbing through a hedge onto a back road and on to the restaurant.  Probably the worlds least secure Army base i have ever encountered.  We had a delicious lunch at New Simple Life restaurant – I would high recommend, even if it is Western food.  The following morning we set of on our second trek with Uncle Sam’s Treks from Kalaw to Inle Lake. Another 2 days. Another 35km.  Although this one was meant to be flat and relatively easy.  They lied.  It was not flat.  Not even close.  It was just Ceri and I on this trek with our lovely guide Zan.  We were admittedly a little disappointed at first as we wouldn’t get to meet any fun people but actually it turned out to be amazing.  We wandered through rice paddies, vegetable fields and villages, only this time, because there was only 2 of us, we could get stuck in.  We met a lovely old lady with her grand daughter, harvesting mountain rice in the fields.  We got invovled and helped her to harvest the rice plants, clean them all up and pack them into bundles, ready for planting in the rice paddies where they would stay for the next 4 months.  She was 60 years old and absolutely beautiful in her traditional Shan headdress.  Although she spoke no English and we spoke no Burmese, we had a wonderful experience with her – even if she did have to re-do all the cleaning and bundling we had attempted to do.  We carried on walking and came across another group of women, this time knee deep in a paddy field.  They waved and laughed with us as we walked past and gestured for us to come and help them.  They thought it was beyond hilarious that we actually did go an help.  Trousers rolled up, Ceri and I both jumped into the rice paddy game to give it a go.  they can plant a row of 10 rice plants in just a few seconds.  “Easy” we thought.  Wrong. The speed and precision with which they plant rice was impossible to replicate and yet again, they had to redo all the rows we had attempted to plant because there was either not enough rice or it was planted too close together, or too far apart.  I think i shall strike “rice farmer” off my resume.  We carried on walking until we encountered a very aggressive cow who was determined not to let us pass.  This meant we had to climb the rice paddy walls to get away from him and this is where it all went wrong.  I fell off a wall face first into a tomato field, which for anyone who knows me knows that is my worst nightmare.  I bloody hate tomatoes.  Ceri fell off a paddy wall into the actual paddy field and was absolutely soaked.  At first i had a real sense of humour failure but then we literally could not stop laughing.  Poor Zan must have thought we were insane.  We eventually arrived at our home-stay after many detours, had a very public bucket shower and the most delicious dinner, cooked for us by our very own master chef – Zan.  Our dinner consisted of chicken curry, cucumber salad (the most delicious i have ever eaten), okra, stir fried kale, green beans and chips!! Yes – chips – like, actual chip shop chips!  We were so happy!!  As we finished dinner and sat back to relax, we both looked up at the sky and had the same reaction at exactly the same time.  I’m starting to think we are morphing into the same person.  The stars were some of the most incredible I have ever seen.  They even rivalled Port Barton.  As we stepped towards the trees to get away from the lights of the house, we were treated to stars of a different kind – glow worms.  Tiny little green flashing lights floating around in the trees like real life fairies.  It was magic.  I was so content going to bed that night, despite the fact that i was sleeping less than 10 feet away from a 1 tonne buffalo and 2 cows which stank to high heaven.  Yes, we were sleeping in a barn, but I literally didn’t care!  We had another early start in the morning to be at the boat station in time for our rice across Inle Lake.  More rice paddies, more incredible mountain views, more beautiful local people, learning to blow bubbles from the stem of a jojoba plant, seeing a beautiful little water snake in one of the rice paddies and the re-introduction of our favourite game – “Guess the Card.”  Ceri nailed it.  That’s 1 all now! ​

​After about 15km, we stopped at a rest stop for a snack and some green tea.  There was a group of Burmese lads sat next to us who appeared to be in some sort of band.  They had a guitar and an incredible collection of voices between them.  One of the “band members” was an ex professional footballer for Myanmar and another a local tattoo artist.  It was so nice to sit and listen to them sing while the torrential rain drifted towards us. ​

​ We had to sacrifice the last leg of our trek in the name of safety as the rain had made the tracks too dangerous, so we paid 1000kyats each and piled into the back of a pick up truck to take us down the rest of the mountain.  We had a delicious lunch and then hopped in our small wooden boat to take us almost the entire length (South to North) of the exceptionally beautiful Inle Lake.    We checked into our hostel, Ostello Bello and headed out to a highly recommended spot for dinner – Innlay Hut.  The owner is Eminem’s biggest fan (bigger fan than Stan.)  The walls are decorated with Eminem related pictures and quotes, his music blares out across the restaurant and the owner tries his hardest to emulate him in every way.  The curry they serve is also incredible which is a double bonus!!  Our final full day in Myanmar we hopped back in a boat for a tour of Inle Lake and some of its offerings.  We didnt get as far as we hoped, but we were able to see local cigar making, longyis being made on a loom, scarves being made from lotus fibres.  I really wanted to buy you one Toria, being that it was made from lotus flowers, but at 190USD for a tiny scarf it was a bit out of my price range.  You got another present though so all is not lost.  The reason the lotus items are so expensive is because the fibres have to be harvested by hand.  One lady sits with the stems, cutting them into inch long pieces.  As she pulls the pieces apart, the fibres stretch out between the 2 pieces and she rolls this fibre into a fine twine.  She then rolls this together onto a long spindle which is then used to weave the fabric together.  â€‹

​The final piece is not even all that pretty, somewhat resembling burlap cloth.  During our ride home across the lake we were able to see the famous Inle Lake fishermen and their unique way of fishing.  They paddle the boat oars with their feet, whilst standing up and tending to the nets with their hands.  I wouldn’t even be able to stand up on the back of one of those boats, let alone on one foot, paddling with the other and fishing with my hands.  It really is a sight to see.

Sadly for us, Inle Lake was our final stop on our Burmese adventure and what an adventure it has been.  We have been blessed with so many incredible experiences and memories and I’m so glad we got to visit this beautiful country before it becomes too “touristy” and spoilt.  The Burmese people are some of the most kind, beautiful and generous people I have ever had the pleasure of spending time with and if anyone is thinking about going to Myanmar, please please do.  It has been an absolute gem in my grand adventure.

#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.  â€‹

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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!  ðŸ

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 ðŸ‡»ðŸ‡³

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 NgÅ© 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? ​

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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 ðŸ¹ðŸ’ƒðŸ½

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 whom 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 ðŸŸðŸ’

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! 😂 â€‹â€‹â€‹

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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.” 🤦🏽‍♀️