Tiny chairs, tiny pigs and big fun.
15.02.2014 32 °C
This is a long one....get a comfy seat....
Getting to the airport everything going exactly how it should and completely unflustered, I relaxed with a glass of Shiraz and a superfood salad before my flight, while I watched all the other people run around in a fluster including an older Russian couple who much to my amusement stank of alcohol and were doing everything they weren't supposed to. Not emptying their pockets at security and putting everything in their bag they weren't supposed to, standing in everyones way at every given opportunity and giving the air hostess a mini breakdown when they three times tried to start boarding before their seat numbers had been called at the gate.....brilliant!
I had used my brain and booked a night flight so that I could kip on the plane and arrive fresh in Vietnam at 9am...this was spot on I almost couldn't believe it when I woke up after 7 hours sleep, must be all the camping that has got me used to sleeping without a bed! Delighted I rounded off the flight with a great film The Butler. A quick change in Hong Kong to the plane to Ho Chi Min City and some ear wigging of other people's travel research of areas in Vietnam which might come in useful later....then I was there! I had already booked the first night in a hotel as Sam and Kate weren't arriving for another day and I was met by the airport transfer which made things easier and slightly celebrity like! Ho Chi Min City as is renowned for its traffic chaos, everyone is on mopeds and there aren't really any rules of the road or restrictions meaning that you can put as many people on a moped or as much cargo and fly around the city while beeping the horn every 2 metres!
I already knew what I wanted to do when i got to the nice hotel and that was nothing!! I hadn't slept in a proper bed for so long or bathed after camping and going from place to place over the last 5 weeks I decided to treat myself to a day of luxury. Gym session to burn off the kilos from New Zealand, 3 hour spa session with all the trimmings and massages to feel fresh, lovely vietnamese dinner in the hotel with fresh coconut water and bed at 8pm.......delighted!!! Tourism can wait until day 2, I was extremely happy with my decision and the whole lot including dinner and the hotel cost was £45....bargain!
The next day I walked all around the city taking in the womens museum, getting lost which is always actually quite useful for seeing things, eating some street food while I awaited the arrival of my British Northerners!
They arrived in a flurry of excitement with the announcement from the hotel bell boy that Mr Sam was at the door...that stuck! We then did what all other friends who haven't been together for nearly 18 months do....we went out!!! HCMC is an interesting night but as we were later to discover not a touch on Hanoi. So we did our research and hopped around a few roof bars, one very odd nightclub which may well have been a teenage night out with karaoke and finally an internationally peppered established where we danced our little legs off! Much of the next day was trying to decide where to go next and with Kate and Sam needing to soak up some beach vibes we booked a flight to Phu Quoc. Sam and I managed to have a fun filled afternoon while Kate got on top of her jet lag strolling all round the city having the worlds best Banh Mi (Vietnamese kind of filled roll with coriander, salads, pork and chilli). Sam then accidentally accusing a shop assistant of not giving him the correct change quickly learnt sorry in Vietnamese. The rest of the afternoons 5 hour walk included witnessing a full blown fight between two men at an intersection hitting each other with planks of wood...who knows what over! A free beer, a night market, some delicious coconut smoothies, noodles, dirty feet, nearly having a massage and so many mopeds...we were in awe of the city!
Phu Quoc was next and we were staying in a resort with bamboo huts pretty much on the beautiful beach, next door was a much nicer resort so we took full advantage of their comfort too! We liked it so much we ended up staying for 5 days. The best way we decided to maximise what we saw was to rent scooters and with that being the preferred method of transport in vietnam they weren't hard to find. Kate and I being the test dummies while Sam chilled at the beach set off down the sandy and rocky lane and headed towards town. Sand and rocks are not the best way to start off your moped adventure but with a few skids and two drops of the bikes after that we were fine and in fact later becoming off road moped pros! Scooting in town was full on, imagine a swarm of bees on roller skates and that's how hectic it was to drive around but like good women we styled it out even when some teenagers laughed at us for chickening out going over a muddy slippery wet bridge...thanks but no thanks 'One Direction'!
Sam joined us the next day as a novice but slotted straight in to it, we spent the whole day scooting all over the island, in the forest passing pepper farms and meeting other travellers on the way and stopping for Vietnamese coffee which is thick sludgy delicious ice coffee sweetened with condensed milk!! We all prob need a trip to the dentist by now! On the north side of the island there were a lot of tiny local villages and the sea is dotted with houses on stilts which I'd heard before coming that can be a pretty common way to live. Later an Aussie woman told me that a lot of the islanders moved into these houses in the sea as tourist companies used their land on the coast to build hotels, I find this quite sad really. Although tourism must be good for local employment and boost the economy, having to move out of your house to make way for it takes the edge off. However I guess it's similar to people having to move to make way for a bypass in England...I hope the locals at least got some 'Dong' for that. People also live in house boats and float around in the sea or on rivers which we witnessed later on a boat trip when someone floated their house next to our boat to sell the captain sea urchins!
So the nights in Phu Quoc were relaxed just eating and chilling out but with the help of our scoots we were able to see much of the island including pretty extravagant fish stalls where we had dinner at the night market and passed on our Phu Quoc tips to some new arrivals an older couple from Ireland sat next to us, although they informed us their scootering days were long gone!
Highlights other than much serious off road scootering including through a construction site were Sams 'princess bed' or more commonly known mosquito net cover, earning him the nickname Princess after he exclaimed he couldn't help us pack up as he was organising his princess bed ...ooops slip of the tongue! A boat trip which we did for the day including snorkelling and fishing with the tour organiser Jerry like 'Tom and Gerry' which he told us many times! We met a few people on the boat and invited one to dinner that night as he was staying in our hotel and travelling alone. Great guy from india and who gave us some interesting Indian culture lessons while we ate!
Next up with a bit of last minute travel plan changing we were heading to Hanoi. Originally we were thinking of getting a sleeper train up to Da Nang but with it being Vietnamese New Year tickets were pretty scarce so we decided to change plans all together and head North. Hanoi was a totally charged city even more so than HCMC with its Colonial buildings and French influence there was a more vibrant feeling here. City's seem to end up being the same for me, less about the culture and more about the socialising! However I did fit in a few walks around to soak up the atmosphere, loads of street food, a quick carry of the street sellers pineapples and quite a lot of coconuts. I actually really liked Hanoi especially with the buzz of it being new years eve. We stayed here two night and we had a great time partying including meeting two Norwegians who apparently weren't 'successful high brow gays' after all, table football in what turned out to probably be some sort of dodgy den bar, a great big dance in an off the beaten track club (you can take us out of Hackney but you can't take Hackney out of us!). To top it off, a second night now joined by Sams French friend who happened to be in Hanoi too tagging along to what ended up being a lock in and with Kate and I teaching the whole bar the dance to Candy Cameo with a quick hide upstairs in the front room for the whole bar when the owner said the police were coming past and would fine them for being open late! Hanoi you have impressed!!
Fulfilled with our party fun we now headed off for some rural exploring culture! Ninh Binh to be precise. Having read that it would give Halong Bay a run for its tourist money we were planning on hiring scooters, staying in a homestay and visiting Tam Coc and as it happens this turned out to be beyond incredible!!
Now it started off appallingly all of us lets say feeling the effects of the party and the street food weren't in particularly good condition to be squashed in a public mini bus for a 3 hour journey with more people than there were seats.....what do you expect for £3! If I am brutally honest I had a panic on and if I hadn't slept I would have got off like I had pictured in my head for the fist 30 minutes where more and more people got on and filled in gaps in the seats. The answer after turning round to Kate and saying 'I can't do this' was simply let the bus vibrations make you go to sleep, it worked a treat. We got there and with some excellent common sense and not a word of Vietnamese between us but apparently quite a lot of unhelpful French we concluded that the best place to hire a scooter would be through a hotel in town and we were right. Two scooters between three and 3 small backpacks we were off into the country. Understandably we got lost, maybe something to do with the fact we had overlooked the idea to pre plan jotting down the directions instead being somewhat surprised when our very Western compass 'the iPad' didnt save the booking page with the address on. Again with no Vietnamese, but 100 dong we managed to communicate 'homestay' to a semi tour guide somewhere near the foot of a mountain who jumped on his scoot, pocketed our 100 dong and drove us down some seriously narrow gravel paths lining rice paddies showing us right to the door or our accommodation. Money well spent and he seemed pretty happy!
Now when we arrived we were delighted especially to find a tiny pig called 'Bacon' who greeted us amongst chickens, goats and baby ducks. Bacon was to feature much in the next few days with Kate's emotional attachment to her becoming a worry at how was she going to ever be able to leave her! The story of Bacon was she was the runt of the litter, bruised and battered from her siblings and undernourished she was rescued by the owners from their next door farmer neighbour, she will probably always stay tiny and she only eats rice and turns her piggy nose up to everything else.....she is also extremely fond of cuddles!
The owners of this incredible homestay showed us to our minimalistic semi open bamboo hut but with all the amenities we needed, a hot shower and a comfy warm bed with duvet it was like sleeping amongst nature but in a double bed with electricity. Waking up to the lake and the goats was really something when you are partially covered by the hut but warm in your bed! The link to the homestay is http://www.nguyenshack.com
After a long home cooked dinner and a good sleep Maxime took us on a bicycle tour of the area over rice paddies, to the local school, to pagodas, into his friends house for a beer and some raw sugarcane (so much for a packet of dry roasted) and finally to his friends farm where bacons giant parents were housed! On the way he taught us everything from the cost of schooling to how to make tofu and rice wine, we learnt so much just in a morning! That afternoon we scooted to Tam Coc and hitched a boat ride along the river, winding through and underneath limestone caves (with wet feet thanks to Sam getting into the boat like an 80yr old woman balancing on a jelly!). An indescribable and peaceful journey at times rowed with the guides feet which I'm sure was much more relaxed than Halong bay would have been and with only one incident of hustling to buy things!
Next day was Bai Dinh and with quite a lot of scootering and difficulty to find it was one of those places you just thought this isn't going to be worth it. We were however proved wrong when South East Asia's largest single golden Buddha towered over us. I found this so peaceful and a really special place which without sounding too ridiculous i felt had such a spiritual air around it for me and I was in awe. I think it helped that it was a misty day adding to the mystical feel of the place. Onward and keeping an eye on the time we climbed many many steep steps to reach the top of mount Moa nestled between spectacular views of Tam Coc one way and the vibrant town in the other it was a lovely way to round off that section of the trip with the noise of Tet celebrations warming up in the background.
We were due to leave and dropped the scoots back at the hotel with the receptionist telling us not to get the bus as they would be too overpacked and instead sent us running down the road with 5 minutes to spare to get the last train to Hanoi. One angry Vietnamese ticket attendant (no idea why) and a quick supermarket sweep of biscuits for dinner which was the only identifiable snack we could see, we sat in comfy clean seats of the train....delightful! I absolutely can't tell you how much I loved this bit of the trip....actually all of Vietnam but especially the exploration and free spirit of Ninh Binh. I would highly recommend exploring it, you get a real sense of freedom and 'real' vietnam doing this. The homestay was called Ngyan Shack and can be found on the Internet if anyone is interested, they also have a property on the river of the Mekong Delta.
So with 24 hours left before it was time for Sam and Kate to go home we flew to Bangkok stayed in a lovey room in amongst the Bangkok protests and took in some long awaited Muey Thai boxing which was exceptional
My next stop was to meet Stephy O'Grady in Ko Samui. Now the next four days were about soaking up sunshine and catching up over Piña Coladas. The only downside was we hadn't figured out where the quieter less commercial part of the island was til the last 2 days when we scootered round the whole island, taking in waterfallls, pancakes and local markets along the way and beautified ourselves in the islands many Spas. One word of advise though dont buy local sun cream it has about as much SPF in it as a teapot does chocolate..... much burn later i was not impressed and thinking about watchdog. We both decided seedy middle aged mantown 'Chewang' or 'chavwang' as it should be called was not for us! We made the most of it though, introducing Steph to Thai rum, having a lads night at the boxing, a sufficient amount of dancing and being accused of being Irish for drinking a beer by the pool at sunset; one of us pale and the other a redhead....stereotyping indeed!
For my final hours of what had been a mammoth trip I was spending one night in Bangkok with my great friend Sarah who had just finished a 10 day silent meditation camp....hoping she was now in the mood to chat I made my way across the city of Bangkok's easy metro system and with one last treat checked into a 5* hotel with an Infinity pool hanging over the city of the 14th floor (exchange rate considered 5* Bangkok is much more affordable than 5* London). Luckily she was in the mood to talk and in a flurry of hugs we were reunited after 16months of being away and spent the next 24 hours pretty much solidly talking in luxury living round the pool on huge comfy pool beds sipping at cocktails and a buffet breakfast so good we were nearly pushed out the door. All this except for an adventurous out to dinner walk which saw us run thorough 10 lanes of traffic and a family of giant rats in the street on the way to the riverside restaurant!
When you travel around a lot some of life's simple things are absolute luxuries...ie crisp sheets and clean clothes! Coining the phrase "we've done well here" at any given opportunity to describe that 24 hours as quick as we were reunited Lane was heading towards Panang and my next stop was back to NZ!
What happened next was to be a jaw dropping experience! I had been thinking how incredibly lucky I was to have seen and done so much over the last 9 weeks. Almost feeling guilty for having had such a good time and not having to be at work but off I went to the airport with what i thought was enough time and full of anticipation with what was going to happen in life next. My peaceful thoughts were shattered when I started to realise that this journey across town was taking significantly longer than I had allowed for. Finally arriving at the airport I had only 90 minutes (the check in closing amount) until my flight took off so running through the terminal thinking god I hope they still let me check in I wasn't best pleased to be confronted with the Emirates queue which was approximately 300 people deep! Not good.
I cornered one of the staff who thankfully put up me into another queue only 4 groups long (obviously which always includes a family with 7 suitcases and 4 kids). Getting a sweat on now as we weren't moving and starting to run through plans of what to do when I don't get on this flight I eventually made it to the desk. All was going well until the clerk decided to question me on my NZ visa and why I don't happen to have a copy in my passport. Those of you in the know will realise that most visas are nowadays electronic and therefore it flags up on entrance to the country. After much pleading and explaining to the clerk who still couldn't grasp the electronic system, my iphone copy of my visa or the fact that I had an NZ entrance stamp in my passport for one month previous he sends me off to customer service desk. Over the next 15 minutes another Emirates staff member questioned my visa so much so that he called NZ immigration who judging by the conversation outcome must have told him he was an idiot and to let me fly. Running back to the original desk with 60mins til take off and where my bag and 304 other people were, the clerk thrust two boarding tickets into my hand and told me to hot foot it to the gate. In such a panic now that I still had passport control and customs to negotiate I didn't pay much attention to the boarding card until finally I looked down and saw..........Business Class!!...... Noooooooooooo surely not there must have been a mistake, maybe they have run out of paper to print the economy tickets on, the flights were correct, Bangkok to Sydney but I still couldn't accept the possibility that business class was written on the ticket....and not just any old business class but Emirates business class! I pegged it through the terminal having just enough time to throw my money at the duty free woman to buy perfume before I ran to the gate.
When I sat down in the fully reclining cocoon seat come bed of 9F I finally accepted 'oh my god this is actually happening, I am going to fly business class for the next 10 hours' ...hallelujah!! God bless our Middle Eastern neighbours and their lust for everything glam because Emirates Business Class is De-lux!!!! I still don't know why I was upgraded but I'm pretty confident that they had screwed up check in and overbooked the flight. The ironic thing was the night before I had tried to check in online but gave up when the system was playing up....thank god I hadn't! As I had just about closed my mouth from astonishment and stowed my very non business class type canvas handbag the air hostess asked if I would like a glass of champagne......ummmm YES!
For the next 10 hours i had champagne cocktails, vintage red wine, a four course delux dinner on royal doultan china, 2 movies and all the free stuff I could manage (in a classy way obviously) before having the air steward add a mattress to my bed so I could get some 5* air sleep. I was having such a lovely time I almost didn't want to go to sleep in case I missed something. This upgrade was not wasted, rich people probably just take this in their stride but I fully appreciated everything, most of all the Bvlgari very fancy goodie bag of travel items! I arrived in Sydney as happy as a pig in....
My economy qantas connection flight was a chore after that and as I poked around the naff breakfast on my way back to Auckland I was at least looking forward to see my pals. My bag however was obviously so happy with Emirates that it didn't make it to Auckland and got left in Sydney with the fantastic response from the baggage desk of "we didn't have enough time to transfer it to the other plane" ummmmm isn't that what is supposed to happen on the 90 minute connection which i managed to make in person and on foot. Anyhow at least I didn't have to carry it on the Sky Bus back to Auckland city centre I guess and it got delivered the following morning!
So that's a wrap, the past few weeks have been so good rounded off with an unexpected flying treat. Thanks to all those involved who made it such a great time. Next stop Gizzy and back to work........