Tag Archives: cambodia

Guide to Backpacking Asia

21 Aug


A website called Travel Tips and Hacks published a post I wrote on backpacking round Asia.


Have a look for some handy tips!


Understanding Fashion in Vietnam – Pyjamas, Ponchos and Pale Skin

26 Jul

Apart from the obvious family, friends and scampi fries; there are many other things that I very much miss about home.

I miss fashion. I miss the physical act of going shopping for clothes. I have been wearing the same six outfits for the last five months and I am beyond sick of them. I will admit that there is something enjoyable about not having to decide what to wear when you get up in the morning – at the moment, it’s a case of whatever is clean will do. But my email inbox is constantly updating with newsletters from Topshop, Urban Outfitters and ASOS and while I find it’s easier not to open them, I can’t resist torturing myself by having a look.

While trying to adopt an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude to trends back home, I couldn’t help but notice that two piece printed items are in fashion this summer. I love this look and if I were at home, this style would be a definite addition to my wardrobe.

2 piece
It turns out, however, if patterned two pieces are my thing then I have most certainly come to the right place. The Vietnamese actually have their own long-established version of this trend. The infamous Vietnamese Pyjamas.

Vietnamese PJs - Often teamed with conical hat

Vietnamese PJs – Often teamed with conical hat

Except here, it really cannot be described as a trend. Residents of most Vietnamese cities and towns have been rocking the pyjama look for years. And I’m sure they will continue to do so for many more. It is a strange sight when you first arrive to the country and the majority of women are going about their daily business, clad in what is clearly a pair of pyjamas. Admittedly, they do come in varying styles ranging from full length ‘button ups’ to matching shorts and T-shirt sets but there is no denying they are all very obviously pyjamas. Curious as to why the style is so popular, I asked a local friend and she informed me that these sets aren’t really considered to be bed wear and fall more in to the lounge wear category. I suppose they are almost the equivalent of a ‘Juicy Couture’ tracksuit back home. Oh, but wait – they DO actually sleep in them as well? So they are pyjamas? No. I’m confused.

Vietnamese PJs hanging out to dry

Vietnamese PJs hanging out to dry

The appeal of the Vietnamese pyjama set is fairly widespread but it is an even more more common sight in rural areas. The cities in Vietnam, are globalizing and developing at a fast rate and the fashion sense of the inhabitants is modernizing with it. That said, it is still very popular here in Hanoi. Generally, it is women in the ‘over 35’ age bracket that can be seen sporting a pair of jazzy nylons but it is not uncommon for younger Vietnamese to be spotted running a quick errand in a pair. The main area of difference is apparent in the socio-economic divide. Street hawkers and women working in typically lower paid jobs wear these pyjamas almost as if it were a uniform. One obvious selling point is that they are practical and comfortable and actually, the longer I spend here, the more tempted I am to indulge in a pair…


Another common style favoured by Vietnamese women is the floral ‘sun jacket’, worn to shield skin and prevent it from being exposed to the sun. Since arriving here, I have learned that the most insulting thing you can say to a Vietnamese woman is that she has a nice tan (oops, made that mistake… did NOT go down well). Pale skin is considered to be of the utmost beauty and I often have people stopping me in the street to tell me how lovely my white skin is. (‘White?! How dare you. I have been working on my golden tan for weeks!’) Before buying any sort of beauty products, shower gels or face creams, you should check that they don’t have whitening agents in them. These products are everywhere. Pale skin has long standing connotations of coming from a poor background and so, women go to great lengths to avoid developing any sort of a tan. The distinguishable ‘sun jackets’ provide a capped hood and sleeve that cover the lengths of your hands, to minimize any expose to UV rays. This look is always teamed with the mandatory face mask and sunglasses. On a sunny day, literally every woman you see will be wearing a variation of this combination. How they can bear the heat is a question that begs to be asked.

This jacket, mask and glasses look is everywhere

This jacket, mask and glasses look is everywhere

Clothing and fashion customs in Vietnam can be difficult to get your head around. As the country modernizes and takes increasing influence from the West, a lot of the younger women have started to dress in very revealing outfits. They can often be seen riding around on a shiny Vespa, in patent leather stilettos and figure hugging shift dresses. Hot pants, body con mini-dresses and chiffon shirts are very common. Yet, traditionally, to wear something which reveals the tops of your shoulders is often perceived as disrespectful and this custom is often still adhered to. Confusing.

The shopping scene in Hanoi is actually becoming quite stylish but the physical act of buying clothes can be difficult. I tend to find the feeling of the sales staff literally ‘sizing you up’ to be particularly off-putting. Entering a shop to be welcomed by several employees shouting at you encouragingly – “we have big sizes!” – is not my idea of an enjoyable shopping experience. (I have also made the mistake of venturing in to a ‘locals only’ clothes shop where the owner point blank refused to serve me but more on this attitude later). The shops themselves vary in quality and style. There are some very cool boutique shops with vintage style clothes in the window but when you actually pluck up the courage to go in to the shop, the garments inside often don’t quite live up to those on the mannequins. Or even if they do, they usually only have one size available in each item – tiny size. This all leads to a fairly stressful shopping experience and therefore, I have been avoiding a big shopping trip since I got here.

The traditional 'Ao Dai' are often worn by Vietnamese women on special occasions, particularly weddings

/>Despite the modernization of fashions in Vietnam, it is still a common sight to see women wearing the traditional ‘Ao Dai’, usually for special occasions such as weddings and family parties.

Difficulties aside, it is interesting to observe how women dress in different cultures and the way in which perceptions of beauty can vary wildly from country to country. In the West, it is considered far more provocative to expose your legs in a mini skirt than your shoulders in a sleeveless T-Shirt. Similarly, while I am desperate for a tan, the women here suffer the sweltering heat in extra layers rather than have their skin go even a slight shade darker. Vietnamese women are beautiful and I wish that they would embrace the lovely skin tone that they have, rather than focusing on trying to lighten it.

One fashion item that we do agree on is that of the Poncho. It’s an essential item for RS 2013 (that’s Rainy Season 2013) and a look that, as you can see, I have embraced with open arms.

Poncho and bike helmet - It's a strong look

Poncho and bike helmet – It’s a strong look

At Home in Hanoi

20 Jul

Hanoi is an exciting place. It has a lovely old age charm to it and feels like a quintessentially Asian city, full of Pagodas and street-side vendors. This traditional setting combined with the modern buzz of an emerging youth culture who are increasingly influenced by Western societies, creates a marvelous juxtaposition of old meets new. It is currently a city undergoing change and caught between two opposing generations.

flower lady 2

The older cohort are traditionalists, clinging on to their Soviet values and supporting the 11.30pm curfew (which is enforced reasonably rigorously by the local police – don’t worry, there are ways around it). Then there are the young Vietnamese, with their iPhones, skinny jeans and K-POP inspired haircuts. With a love of anything Western, they insist on eating KFC and any other kind of fried food in favour of traditional dishes such as ‘pho ga’ and ‘bun cha’.

young vietnam

It is an interesting time to be here, for sure. Over the last five years, most bicycles have been replaced by motorized Honda Waves and shiny new Vespas. There is increasing artistic freedom, with an emerging music and arts scene that is beginning to take off and become recognized out with the confines of Hanoi. There is more foreign investment in the country and new businesses pop up frequently. This has, in turn, led to a gradually wealthier population, an increased cost of living and subsequent changing values. The city now has an ALDO and a Louis Vuitton, something that would have been completely out of place a few years ago. Slowly catching up with neighbouring countries, the demand to learn English in Vietnam is currently massive and it is a fantastic time to be a teacher here.

Crossroads in Hanoi

Crossroads in Hanoi

Having identified Vietnam as our chosen destination to teach English before actually visiting the country, I was anxious as to how we would find it. Having heard mixed reports from fellow travellers and claims that the country can be very racist and unfriendly, I was on edge as we took our taxi from Noi Ba airport into Hanoi. I needn’t have worried and after our first few hours in the Northern capital, I began to breathe a sigh of relief. Despite the craziness (or perhaps because of it?), we loved it here as soon as we arrived. The people of the North are reputed to be less welcoming than those of the South. In my experience, this is true to a certain extent. Saigon has flung open its arms to tourism and Western development while Hanoi is keen to maintain its identity. This can make the residents tougher nuts to crack and less accepting of foreigners.

Local vendors - as a foreigner, you WILL be charged a 'tourist' tax on anything you buy off of the street stalls

Local vendors – as a foreigner, you WILL be charged a ‘tourist’ tax on anything you buy off of the street stalls

Hanoi is a continual flurry of fruit vendors, bicycles, flower sellers, pyjama wearing women in conical hats, dirt cheap beer (bia hoi), street food, rickshaws, motos, street hawkers, helium balloons, windmills, bird cages and motorbike fumes.

Bia Hoi in the O

Bia Hoi in the Old Quarter

The legendary Old Quarter is a winding maze of 36 streets, intrinsically linked together and impossible to get your head around in less than a few weeks. Each street has a specialty. My particular favourites are aptly named ‘shoe street’ and ‘jewelry street’. These streets do what they say on the tin and you will find shop-front after shop-front all displaying identical wares. This theme continues throughout the city and venturing out of the Old Quarter, you can find ‘chicken street’. Yes, you guessed it – a whole street dedicated to selling barbequed chicken. All glazed with the exact same sauce and served with the exact same side of potatoes and ‘ban my’ (delicious honey glazed bread). Welcome to Asia. Whole streets of shops and stalls, steadfastly selling the exact same product. Other streets in Hanoi include guitar street, bathroom street, phone street, book street… I could go on…

Quiet Hanoi Street!

Quiet Hanoi Street!

After a couple of weeks living in a hostel in the Old Quarter, we realized that this is essentially the tourist part of town. There is so much more to Hanoi! If you come here for a limited period of a couple of days, I guess this is the place to be. But on exploration, the city just has so much more to offer. There are an abundance of lakes, parks, museums and art galleries. Each district offers something a little different to the residents.

sleepy flower

We are currently living off a main street called Au Co, in Tay Ho district. A five minute walk takes us to an array of lovely shops, delis, street food places, bia hoi stalls (organically brewed beer selling for 10p a glass) and the biggest lake in Hanoi, West Lake. When it’s not too hot, you can cycle round the lake, stopping off for lots of tra da (iced tea) on the way round. It’s about 16km in circumference and showcases a lovely side to the city.

West lake

West lake

It is difficult to find peace and quiet in Hanoi – impossible some will tell you. West Lake offers a fairly relaxed setting, in a city where it can be difficult to hear yourself think. Although, even beside the more relaxed setting of the lake, there’s no getting away from the incessant beeping of motorbike horns. It is deafening at times and I still find myself losing my temper at the occasional innocent passers-by.

Sometimes it is necessary to escape the constant craziness, the threat of death from oncoming vehicles and simply breathe air that isn’t thick with motorbike fumes. The beauty of Hanoi is that it is possible to do this quite easily. There are lots of national parks and areas of outstanding beauty within a couple of hours drive out of the city. Recommended trips include Mai Chau and Ba Vi National Park, both of which can be reached in a few hours.

Road trip to Ba Vi

Road trip to Ba Vi

There are lots of things about Hanoi and its people that I don’t understand and probably never will. But, I am OK with that and have learned to accept the city for what it is. I have even managed to master crossing the road which basically requires you to walk in front of oncoming traffic at an even pace and watch them miraculously shape shift around you. I still can’t help but shudder when I pass ‘Thit Cho stalls’ (barbequed dog meat) and I shake my head in disbelief every time I see a family of five whizz past me on a motorbike at break neck speed, with only the children wearing no helmets. But this is Hanoi, and the longer I spend here, the more I grow to love it… the more it feels like home.

Hanoi Photographs

Our street

Our street

Hanoi roadside hairdresser!

Hanoi roadside hairdresser!

Hoan Kiem Lake (or 'sword lake') by night

Hoan Kiem Lake (or ‘sword lake’) by night

John having a bia hoi in the Old Quarter

John having a bia hoi in the Old Quarter

Me by Hoan Kiem Lake

Me by Hoan Kiem Lake

Trip to Mai Chau

Trip to Mai Chau

Old Quarter

Old Quarter


New friends!

Highlights of our Travels Round South East Asia

13 Jul

This trip has paved the way to so many amazing experiences and so, in truly original fashion, I have decided to put together a ‘Top 12’ list of the highlights of our travels round South East Asia.

1. Bangkok

City that never sleeps!

City that never sleeps!

First stop, Bangkok! It all seemed quite surreal until we arrived here. We had booked our tickets a few months in advance, arranged accommodation for arriving, read all about it in our Lonely Planet guide and done lots of fantasizing… but no amount of day dreaming or research could have prepared us for the overwhelming, full on assault of buzzing Bangkok. Arriving off the plane, you step outside into the wall of sauna-like heat and instantly, you are surrounded by overeager taxi drivers, on the hunt for ‘fresh meat’. Our glaring white skin and squeaky clean backpacks gave us away at the first hurdle. Remembering the advice read online about touts and scams, we managed to fight off the hordes and head to the official rank to book a car there.

It took us a few days, weeks even, to get in to this ‘Asia mindset’ of always being on your guard. It sounds awful but do not trust the kindness of strangers, not in Bangkok. Be aware of your personal belongings and if a smiling man approaches you in the street with any sightseeing advice, run the other way. It’s probably a scam. We learned this the hard way.

Warts and all, an infectious energy permeates this lively city. There is almost too much going on to take it all in. The streets positively pulsate with people. Walking around it is impossible to escape the cry of ‘ping pong show, *pop pop*’ and the strange allure of exotic looking lady boys. The mayhem is non-stop with cheap beer on tap, stray animals roaming the streets, a constant threat of being run over by passing tuk tuks, countless stalls selling scorpions on sticks and street food vendors on every corner. It’s mind blowing.

Our first tuk tuk journey

Our first tuk tuk journey

From the moment you arrive, until the moment you leave, there is an ongoing battle between the city and your senses. In fact, for the first couple of days, John had to walk around with something covering his nose, for fear of being sick. The smell of drains and damp mixed with a million different types of food, animals and body odours is overpowering at best, plain disgusting at worst. I was in love.

Khao San Road is the inevitable starting point for visitors to Bangkok. The backpacker district of the city, it is aptly described as ‘a decompression chamber between East and West’ by Richard, the adventuring protagonist of Alex Garland’s ‘The Beach’. While still completely alien and exciting to us, the large number of tourists and pubs blaring familiar Western music prevents you from completely losing your footing in this strange environment. It’s where you learn to wave away the touts, brave the street food you’ve been warned against and inhale tropical air for the first time.

Khao San Road by day

Khao San Road by day

As a city, Bangkok has everything: great shopping, spectacular temples, 24/7 nightlife, all the karaoke you could ever want (and more…), an abundance of delicious food and a beautiful river. (As John was soon to find out, I am obsessed with locating the river in every place we travel to. I find it comforting, almost like we have found the central point of our location. It’s like the beating pulse of any city.) Skyscrapers, shanty towns and traditional pagodas all line the same horizon, illustrating the many faces of Bangkok perfectly.

royal palace

It was the perfect way to begin our travels in Asia and a city that I’ll never forget.

2. Hoi An

Lanterns of Hoi An

Lanterns of Hoi An

Approximately half way down the Vietnamese coast, Hoi An is a quaint old town with an appealing charm that gets under your skin, making it hard to ever leave. We had only planned on staying there for two days but ended up being there for almost a week. The combination of colourful lanterns lining most streets and incredible local food played a huge part in this. Recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the old town remains relatively untouched by the war and exudes historical appeal.

hoi an st

Hoi An is famous for its tailors. There are approximately 500 tailors here, making the industry impossible to escape whilst in town. You will find row upon row of shops all offering an affordable made-to-measure service, with next day pick-up. I had two pairs of sandals made here and after handpicking the exact leather I wanted and having my feet measured, I came back the next day to find two perfect pairs of shoes waiting for me.

The food here is some of the best in Vietnam. Hoi An specializes in a few unique dishes that can’t be found anywhere else, including the delicious ‘White Rose’ (shrimp dumplings) and ‘Cao Lau’ (regional pork dish with secret noodle recipe). From the bustling Central Market Hall where street vendors ply their wares, to the high end Western standard restaurants, it is all equally delicious and definitely not to be missed.

Street food in Hoi An

Street food in Hoi An

3. War Remnants Museum, Saigon

war museum

The War Remnants Museum is an essential for any itinerary when visiting Saigon. It is a stark reminder of the effect that the Vietnam War had, and still has, on the country. Saigon is an international city full of bright lights, shopping malls and 24 hour parties, making it easy to arrive as a tourist and forget the adversities that its people have faced. A trip to this museum will remind you of these hardships, in no uncertain terms, and will leave the images imprinted in your mind. I was moved to tears viewing the aftermath of Agent Orange exhibition. There are still people affected by horrendous disfigurement and deformity to this day, due to the poisonous toxins relentlessly unleashed on the region during the war.

Originally named “Museum of American War Crimes”, the museum is, admittedly, a very one-sided account of atrocities committed during the war. It is, however, a necessary sight for any self-respecting tourist.

4. Elephant Trek and overnight jungle stay, Chiang Mai

Friend for life

Friend for life

Thailand and elephant trek are almost synonymous with one another. They go together like Little Bo Peep and her sheep. Despite this, I was somewhat dubious about it. I had read a lot of reports stating that the elephants were often mistreated and even sometimes drugged to keep them working for longer.

However, after shunning any doubts we decided to sign ourselves up and it turned out to be a memorable experience that I would definitely recommend. Our trek took place in the Mae Taeng Valley, about an hour north of Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. The elephants were amazing and all had different personalities and characteristics. They seemed well looked after and you could sense the close bond that the staff had with them. After spending some time with the elephants and feeding them bamboo shoots, we set off on our trek. It hadn’t even crossed my mind that this could be a scary experience but it turned in to a fairly bumpy ride! We ended up with the black sheep of the family – a mischievous male elephant who repeatedly stumbled off into the bushes to snack on leaves and other greens. Although we did have to hold on for dear life, it was reassuring that the rider was happy to let him do this, laughing explaining to us that he was always hungry.

Making it back to the elephant camp in one piece, our group was then sent off with ‘Lan’, our guide for the next two days. After lunch in a hill tribe village, we trekked on foot through the jungle to our camp for the night, stopping off to look at various plants, insects and waterfalls along the way.

me and john jungle

Our sleeping quarters were… more ‘basic’ than I had expected. I don’t really know what standard I was expecting in the depths of the jungle with nothing surrounding us for miles. (What?! No electricity?!) Consisting of a bamboo roof and a bamboo platform raised off of the jungle floor, it provided shelter for the evening, if nothing else. There was certainly no protection from insects and other wildlife. One thing the trip taught me is that I am definitely not ‘at one with nature’…

Lan had warned that the temperatures drop during the night but it had been around 30 degrees during the day so we didn’t really take his advice seriously. Huge mistake. It was absolutely freezing during the night. Our campfire only kept us warm for so long and despite sinking quite a few Tiger beers, we still felt the cold. It was like being back camping in Scotland!

chiang mai view

Despite the cold, we had a brilliant night with an amazing Thai Massaman curry cooked by Lan, a campfire, beers on tap and a group of interesting people from every corner of the world to hang out with. I spent the majority of the night with one eye open and it definitely wasn’t the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had but the waterfalls, mountains and wildlife in the jungle made it all worthwhile.

5. Sailing down the Mekong River, Si Phan Don, Laos

si phan don

‘Si Phan Don’ translates to 4000 islands in English and while this may be a slight exaggeration, this description conjures up an appropriate image of this lazy and winding section of the Mekong river. The area is made up of a few larger islands and the surrounding river is strewn with hundreds of smaller ‘islands’ and mounds of land. The effect of this is simply stunning.

We stayed on one of the three largest islands, Don Det. The motto of the island is to ‘do nothing’ and with its relaxed atmosphere, plentiful hammock spots and unusual tolerance of marijuana, it is widely known as being a stoner’s paradise.

While here, we decided to use our time effectively and so chartered a boat with a local fisherman, on a mission to spot some Irrawaddy dolphins. These pink dolphins are unique to the surrounding area and Si Phan Don is locally hailed as the best place to sight them from. From the section of the river that we stopped at, we were within touching distance of land belonging to Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, which was pretty amazing to see. We did manage to spot some dolphins in the distance but in the end it was the combination of the sunset, our drunken local sailor, the idyllic scenery and lap of the river against the boat that resulted in one of the most memorable experiences of our trip.


6. Full Moon Party sunrise, Koh Phangan

me and john

After hearing the news that a young British guy had been shot at the December 2012 full moon party on Koh Phangan, we were undecided as to whether we should go. After reading Alex Garland’s ‘The Beach’, I was feeling disillusioned by something that has spiraled in popularity over the last 20 years, leaving a bad taste in a lot of travellers mouths and putting it in to the “used to be great but we ruined it” category. It was, however, something I had always wanted to do. It’s no secret, I love a good rave. I really do. And where better to do it than on the beach of a tropical Thai island.

Legend has it that it all began in 1987 with a small group of backpackers and hippies having a party on Haad Rin beach, Koh Phangan. They enjoyed it so much that it became an annual event. Growing in popularity it became more and more frequent until it was happening every month. Word began to spread and enterprising Thais took advantage of the hype, bringing more and more people, eventually starting to sell tickets for the event. Many people complained that this ruined the essence of what began as a gathering of like-minded people, simply seeking to have a party.



Despite the commercialization of the event, it completely lived up to my expectations. Exceeded them even. The atmosphere was electric. The whole island comes alive for the full moon party. A whole beach of people united in their mission to have the best night of their lives. The white sand is lined with vendors selling buckets of alcohol, helium balloons for a quick legal high, fire shows, face painters and children selling glow sticks and trinkets. From the ‘pre-drinks’ at the bungalows we were staying at, to our trip up ‘Mushroom Mountain’ the whole night was one of the best I’ve ever had.

We stayed until around 10am the next morning, leaving as the crowds began to disperse. Watching the sunrise that morning, I am positive I was not alone in the wave of euphoria washing over me.

Loving life

Loving life

7. COPE Centre, Vientiane, Laos


Did you know that Laos PDR is the most bombed country throughout history, in the world, per capita? Me neither. I really had no idea. Which is why I am so glad that we took the time to visit the COPE Center in Vientiane (Laos Capital).

In between 1964 and 2008, 50,000 Laos people were killed or seriously injured as a result of unexploded ordnance (UXO). UXOs are ‘explosive weapons that failed to detonate when they were fired, dropped, launched or projected, and still pose a risk of exploding’. 25% of villages in Laos are still affected to this day by UXO and it results in over 300 casualties per year. COPE Centre is a charity that provides provincial rehabilitation centres providing access to both prosthetic devices and rehabilitation services, including physiotherapy and peadiatric services to people with disabilities. It truly is a fantastic charity and a worthy cause.

Whilst in Laos, we saw many beggars on the street with missing limbs, or even worse, no limbs at all. The centre really opened my eyes to the harrowing truth behind these deformities. If you are visiting Laos, please take the time to stop by the centre, show your respects and make a donation. It’s a really worthwhile cause.

8. Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Sometimes described as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’, it would be very unwise to travel to Cambodia and not visit the temples of Angkor. We did actually meet a few different young ‘uns on their ‘gap year’ that had got so drunk the night before, they had missed their one chance to visit. More fool them.

Angkor Wat sunrise

Angkor Wat sunrise

The largest religious complex in the world, it is an awe inspiring sight. The whole area stretches out over 400km squared and includes the famous temples of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and the Bayon Temple. The location where Tomb Raider was filmed, it felt strangely familiar but seeing the constructions on screen doesn’t come close to the magnificent real life presence that the temples hold. Artistically and architecturally stunning, the complex is huge. One day is enough to see the most famous temples if you go by car or tuk tuk but you could spend a full seven days and still not have ticked everything off of the list. The temple walls are coated with intricate Khmer carvings and it would be easy to spend a day alone taking these in.

me and john angkor wat

We decided to rise early so to see the sun rising over the temple of Angkor Wat and while I am never one to endorse an early morning, it was worth the bleary eyes. I can’t quite decide if the huge amount of tourists with the same idea as us added or detracted from the experience. While it is never desirable that any sight feels over crowded with tourists, there was something strangely exciting about waiting in the dark with hundreds of strangers. Apart from the whirring and clicking of photographers setting up their cameras, everyone was silent and waiting in anticipation. As the light began to carve out the silhouette of Angkor Wat, you could feel the appreciation from the crowd building. The iconic profile of Angkor set against a pink and purple morning sky was a sight to soothe even the sleepiest early-morning eyes.

9. Halong Bay, Vietnam

halong rock

Halong Bay is magnificent. The sight of karst limestone rocks jutting out of jewel green water is a natural wonder that I will never forget. However, a word of advice: go and visit the bay before tourism destroys it. There is no denying that it was hard to ignore the piles of rubbish floating in the water at certain points. There is no system to cope with the ever increasing stream of tourist boats and I fear that, if nothing is done soon, we may ruin one of Earth’s natural wonders.

Handspan Indochina Travel run an annual Clean Up program where tourists are taken out in kayaks to collect as much of the litter and debris floating in the water as possible. It is positive that people have started to recognize that something needs to be done but it is apparent that this annual trip is not even scratching the surface of the problem. As a UNESCO world heritage site, I am surprised at the lack of efforts to clear the bay and sincerely hope something is done soon.

me halong

Despite this, kayaking through the karst rocks, being within spitting distance of hundreds of monkeys in their natural environment and visiting the aptly titled ‘amazing cave’ made Halong Bay a definite highlight of our trip. The whole area has a certain ethereal quality to it, particularly in the spring time as the misty air adds an element of mystery and wonder to the scenery. We stayed overnight on a Junk boat where we watched the sun set before being given a cooking class and a wonderful Vietnamese feast. All in all, a brilliant experience.

10. Kuala Lumpur

Petronas Twin Towers - view from the Sky Bar

Petronas Twin Towers – view from the Sky Bar

My favourite things about Kuala Lumpur? Easy. Topshop and ‘Ladies Night.’

I am well aware that this is a shallow and uncultured answer but my week long trip to Kuala Lumpur mainly served in quenching my thirst for shopping and free cocktails. It was just what I needed. Alongside the famous Petronas Twin Towers, the main features of the city are basically centred around the shopping, which is of an international standard. There are shops to suit everyone and selling everything. They range all the way from Louis Vuitton to local vendors in market halls. After weeks without any serious retail therapy, I was weak at the knees when I spotted my beloved Topshop. This might sound ridiculous but sometimes when you are travelling, all you need to put you back on track is a small taste of home.

Before visiting KL, I was unfamiliar with the concept of ‘Ladies Night’. By the time I left, it is fair to say that I was somewhat overfamiliar with it. Ladies Night is basically a night where all ladies drink for free, all night. They can be found in different bars on every night of the week around the city and there is no scrimping with the drinks. The bar staff seem only too happy to top up your drink relentlessly (which did actually lead me to question their motives… but by that point, I was too drunk to care!)

KL is a beautiful city with lots going on. As well as the shopping and drinking, we visited the Batu Caves, checked out the city’s museums, took a trip to ‘Little India’ and admired the Petronas Twin Towers’ from the famous Sky Bar. The food is amazing with Malaysian, Chinese and Indian cuisine available on every street. However, Topshop and the free cocktails were a definite highlight. A taste of the high life was just what I needed before I returned to Hanoi to begin working as a teacher.

Little India

Little India

11. Night Train,Thailand

After a very dubious night bus adventure upon first arriving in Thailand, we decided that taking the train was the only option for our trip down South to Surat Thani. From here, we were heading off to go island hopping and we wanted to arrive well rested – or as well rested as you can ever be when backpacking round Thailand.


The train itself was surprisingly clean and John and I had a set of bunk beds to share. In the evening, the train is essentially a social gathering with a ‘bar’ serving lukewarm beer and overpriced Pringles. It’s a lot of fun and we met other travellers to share a few beers with…

The train track was fairly bumpy but we both slept fairly well and actually found the swaying of the carriage to be quite soothing, rocking us off to sleep like a couple of babies. We were woken at around 6am for breakfast; even though we weren’t due to arrive until 10am. Not a fan of an early start, this would usually go down very badly with me. However, the sun had risen and the scenery passing by outside was spectacular at points. We passed by shanty towns, mountains, fields of palm trees and some karst rock scenery.

The safety standards on the train are fairly relaxed and passengers are able to open the carriage doors to watch the world go by. We sat for an hour or so, just taking in the countryside as it sped past us. It was amazing. It’s difficult to describe the feeling but the combination of the early morning sun, tropical air, swaying palm trees and rumble of the train tracks all created a beautiful moment and at that point, I felt like we were ‘real travellers’ on our own exciting adventure.

Taking in the scenery

Taking in the scenery

12. Motorbike trip to Mai Chau, North Vietnam

Motorbiking through the rugged mountains of Northwest Vietnam is now one of my all-time favourite experiences, not just from this trip alone. The scenery up here is absolutely breathtaking and the views stretch out for miles. Coupled with passing through several indigenous Vietnamese villages, it makes for an amazing journey. Taking over four hours on motorbike from Hanoi, it did leave us with rather sore bums but it was completely worth it.

Mai Chau scenery

Mai Chau scenery

Mai Chau itself is an amazing location. You can stay in a traditional stilt house, complete with bedding and mosquito net, for less than 2 pounds a night. The signature dish in the village is tasty barbequed pork skewers and rice, available absolutely everywhere.


The views from the valley are some of the most amazing I’ve ever experienced first-hand. The village is nestled between several imposing mountains and surrounded by emerald green rice paddies. The grass is the greenest I have ever seen. It is an idyllic, rural setting where it almost feels as though time stands still.

We went with a group of new friends and two nights of drinking local rice wine, corn whisky and countless beers led to some very good times – and a lot of very bad singing.


An Overdue Adventure

26 Jun

With a one way ticket in our hands and a 60 litre backpack each, we set off on the 9th of January this year, in search of adventure. The self-proclaimed ‘Queen of Procrastination’, I have been guilty of being more of a ‘say-er’ than a ‘do-er’ for the last, well, 26 years (my whole life). After a lot of talk, I finally decided that now was the time to actually go and see some of the world for myself. Asia has always been a continent that fascinates me. With its alien culture, beautiful scenery and buzzing cities, it is somewhere that I have always dreamt of visiting and travelling round. Luckily John, my boyfriend, was also of this mindset and so we set off together, in discovery of beautiful Indochina. This trip has, so far, only touched on Asia as a whole but in the last 5 months we have travelled to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia and Vietnam. We have now both found jobs as English teachers and ‘settled’ into Hanoi life, for the time being anyway.


This trip has been a truly amazing experience. Each day, I look around and feel slightly overwhelmed that we are on the other side of the world, with only each other and a few basic personal possessions. It feels great. It is liberating and exciting and, at times, very scary. (As someone who usually needs a new outfit for every night out, I can’t believe that I have gotten by with only 5 dresses to circulate for the last 5 months.)

From the moment we arrived at our first stop, Bangkok, I was smitten. The city is a living, breathing hot-pot fusion of culture, temples, excitement, exotic lady boys and unfamiliar pursuits. And it really only is a very brief introduction to the delights that the region has to offer. From lounging on the paradisal white sand beaches to motorbiking through the rugged countryside while taking in the breathtaking mountain views, it has been fantastic. I can’t say the trip hasn’t had its ups and downs, however. Asia is a tough and tiring place to be at times. Coming from the West, we are used to everything being so easy. If we want to buy something, we just look at the price tag and then go and buy it. No questions asked; no arguing, no difficulty. If we want to get somewhere, we go. There is an effective public transport system and things are actually signposted. In SE Asia, simple tasks such as buying a banana or trying to get a taxi can be impossibly challenging at times.

Our local shop - no price tags here!

Our local shop – no price tags here!

On more than several occasions, ourselves and fellow travellers have been overheard trying to lighten the atmosphere of a difficult encounter by rolling out the classic line, ‘it’s all part of the experience…’ At the time, this serves as no compensation but these words are completely true. Each day has been different and exciting, meaning we are constantly making new memories. (I would happily erase the memory of our brief visit to a Cambodian hospital where there was the waxy, grey dead body of a man casually lying in the front reception but that’s another story…)

The trip has been eventful but in general everything has run smoothly. This is quite an accolade for a pair of people who, combined, probably lose more sets of keys, phones and bankcards in a year than the whole of Glasgow. We have encountered first hand some of the scams that we read about before we came away. We have both been violently sick for days at a time. I was the victim of an attempted bag theft. But there have been no major disasters, as of yet, and for us that really is quite an achievement!

We have had our fair share of good and bad accommodation. There have been a few pleasant surprises where a room has cost us 3 pounds each and we have arrived to it being clean (a LOT less common than you might think), with a western toilet, washed towels, air con and complimentary water(!). We have, however, also experienced some definite… ‘sub-standard’ accommodation. OK… We’ve stayed in a few absolute shit holes, complete with bed bugs and mosquito infiltration camps. In one particularly lovely guest house in Laos, there were no windowpanes on the window. What’s the big deal, you are thinking? No big deal. Well, apart from the sweltering heat but we can handle that. Until the charming landlord starts burning piles of rotten food and toxic plastic right outside the window at 4am. Then it becomes a huge problem! We checked out first thing. But the beauty of Laos (and its neighbouring countries) is that if you are in need of night in a nice bed and are willing to pay a bit more, 8 or 9 pounds each can buy you a fairly luxurious hostel experience. (As you can tell, our perceptions of what is expensive have been somewhat skewed over the course of this trip!)


The travel itself has been mixed. We have made some interesting journeys, from the surprisingly lovely sleeper train we took from Bangkok to Surat Thani in Thailand, to the absolutely hellish night bus going from Sihanoukville to Siem Riep in Cambodia. This was truly awful. The fact that we were six hours late wasn’t the issue – it was more the Cambodian family sitting on our knees, the lack of air con and the screechy Asian ‘comedy’ sketch show blaring in our faces the whole night that made it particularly unpleasant. Not to mention some of the gruesome toilet stops we made along the way… There are just no words.

One thing this trip has never been is boring. I have written a separate entry on the top 10 highlights of our journey so far and so I won’t go in to too much detail here but from elephant treks to all night jungle parties, South East Asia is just fantastic. If you haven’t yet visited, you should.

So, here we are, living and teaching English in Hanoi. Sometimes I forget how amazing what we are doing really is. It is easy to get used to your surroundings and not take the time to appreciate what is happening. But this is real and it is happening. And it feels good.


“I know these will all be stories someday. But right now these moments are not stories. This is happening, I am here… And in this moment I swear, we are infinite.”

Stephen Chobsky, Perks of Being a Wallflower.