VIETNAM

HO CHI MINH – HOI AN – NHA TRANG


Our fifth and final stop on our travels was Vietnam. I was so excited to arrive, not only because it was completely different to all the other places we had visited but also because of the food!
Our first destination was Ho Chi Minh! Having landed in the evening we decided to find somewhere to eat out and with the help of the friendly staff at our hostel (Town House) we decided to go to The Secret Garden. Waking to the restaurant, I was amazed at how vibrant the city was and also at how insane the traffic was! When we arrived it is fair to say that Hannah and I were filled with dread – the restaurant was located down a small alleyway in what looked like an abandoned building. However, once we climbed the stairs all the way up to the top we found the restaurant on a roof terrace decorated with beautiful plants, fairy lights and lanterns. Not only did the place look lovely, but the food was absolutely to die for and SO CHEAP! It was a much welcomed change from our rations of eggs and pasta that we had been used to in New Zealand!
Being on quite a tight schedule we only had one full day in Ho Chi Minh so we were determined to make the most of it. We were given a really useful map of the city by our hostel so we decided to go on a walking tour – which was a brave decision considering the 40 degree heat and humidity! Over the course of the day we visited some of Ho Chi Minh’s most famous landmarks – the notre dame cathedral, city hall, the opera house, the Ben Thanh Market,  and the central Saigon market. The highlight of the day was walking around the war museum. It was so interesting to learn all about the American/Vietnamese War from a Vietnamese perspective, although also very upsetting and disturbing – especially the many photographs detailing the terrible impact of Agent Orange.
Next up was the little town of Mui Ne – which was entirely different from the busy, bustling city of Ho Chi Minh! Again our stay here was short but sweet. We spent the day relaxing by the pool at our hostel and later on took a trip to the famous red and white sand dunes to watch the sunset. Watching the sunset itself was lovely, but the rest of the trip was a bit of a let down. We got to the dunes a few hours before sunset as we wanted to hire quad bikes to ride around the dunes on. However, when we got there the Vietnamese men hiring out the quads tried to completely rip us off, asking for 1,000,000 Vietnamese dong. For a country known for being very cheap this was absolutely ridiculous. The man refused to negotiate on the price and so instead we were forced to simply sit around and wait for sunset.
IMG_7004
After Mui Ne, we visited the city of Nha Trang – known for being a favourite with Russian tourists. The city was not as vast or busy as Ho Chi Minh, but still had a lively atmosphere. Also, unlike Ho Chi Minh it is right by a beach, which was a bonus! Again we had just one day here so we decided to visit the city’s most famous landmarks, including the long son temple, dam market, and the Cham towers. The temple was absolutely stunning and features the hugest Buddha statue, which you could walk inside, that I have ever seen. The Cham Towers were also a major highlight. Just like the temple these were beautifully decorated and felt extremely sacred.
Before we left Nha Trang we decided to eat at a very highly rated restaurant called Lanterns. In line with its name, the ceiling of the restaurant was covered in beautiful multicoloured lanterns. Hannah and I both had traditional Vietnamese dishes, which were absolutely incredible! I would definitely recommend this restaurant if you’re ever in the area!
IMG_7041

HOI AN – HANOI – HALONG BAY


Moving North, our next stop was Hoi An. Hoi An was not only my favourite place in Vietnam but possibly one of my favourite places of my whole trip! The old town was absolutely enchanting, located next to the river and made up of cobbled streets, lined with lanterns, cafes, restaurants, shops and tailors. To me it felt as if I had gone back in time. Walking around the town, there were historical landmarks around every corner, including old churches, temples and art galleries. It was so surreal to be able to walk out of a cafe or a jewellers and see a beautiful temple in front of you. The old town also hosted a huge market that stayed open throughout the day and night. This market sold everything from every kind of food, clothing, jewellery and more. It was so much fun to barter with the local people and try the amazing food samples that were on offer.
One of the things I was determined to do whilst in Hoi An was a traditional Vietnamese cooking lesson. We booked on one through our hostel (Hoi An Backpackers) and it was above and beyond all my expectations. Having been picked up from our hostel we were first taken to a silk village where we got to see how silk is harvested from silk worms. We saw all stages of the process, from collecting the worms to turning their cocoons into silk and finally watching how the Vietnamese people use the silk to make scarfs, bags, ties and more. Whilst there we also got to try our hand at making traditional Vietnamese lanterns. It was laughable that it took us about half an hour to make one lantern when for the Vietnamese ladies it would take them 5 minutes!
After visiting the silk village we rode bicycles to the old town market to buy our ingredients for our cooking lesson. We bought a number of things, including fresh sea food and vegetables. The cooking lesson itself was one of the highlights of my time in Vietnam. We were shown how to prepare a 4 course meal of fresh pork and prawn spring rolls, traditional savory pancakes, a pork and papaya salad, and finally a delicious Vietnamese curry. After each course we were able to eat all the food we had made – it was absolutely delicious. At the end of the day we were also given a recipe book so that we could cook the dishes we had made again once we were back home!
IMG_7112
Our final stop in Vietnam was Hanoi, which was also up there as one of my favourites! Like Ho Chi Minh the city was extremely bustling and had such a great atmosphere. However, it felt far more traditional than Ho Chi Minh which I liked. Although a beautiful place to walk around during the day, Hanoi was even better by night. After 6pm they close all the streets in the city centre to accommodate for a huge night market. They also have locals doing performances in the streets and selling traditional Vietnamese food.
IMG_7126
Whilst in Hanoi we booked to do the Castaways tour around Halong Bay, which is a 2 night 3 day tour where you stay on an island in the middle of Halong Bay. Known for being quite a ‘party’ trip it was the perfect way to celebrate the end of our travels whilst staying in and exploring a world heritage site! We got to stay on our own private island where we were able to do activities like rock climbing and doughnutting! On our second day we went on a cruise around Halong Bay where we got to experience all the beautiful surroundings. After lunch we also went kayaking for a couple of hours, which was amazing! On our final night on the island we had a huge party, which was the perfect way to end not only our time in Vietnam but our entire trip!
Advertisements

SOUTH ISLAND

Having caught the ferry across to Picton, our first overnight stop on the South Island was Abel Tasman. It’s a beautiful little town situated in the heart of a national park right by the ocean. Since we had a free day here we decided to do a half day walking and kayak tour. In the morning we set off from our hostel along the coastal path that runs through the national park. Along the way there are a number of bays that you can stop off at and the views were amazing. In order to meet our guide for the kayaking we had to walk for about 3 hours until we reached one of the larger bays. Once we arrived we had a picnic lunch on the beach, which included the yummiest chocolate cake. We then set off in our kayaks and began the 3 hour paddle back to our starting point. The views from the water were even more beautiful than from the coastal path and we even got to see seals and their cubs on one of the islands.

image

Next stop after Abel Tasman was Franz Josef, the home of one of New Zealand’s most famous glaciers. Unfortunately, while we were there the weather was awful, meaning we were unable to actually go and see the glacier, since you have to get up there via helicopter. Instead we used our free time as an opportunity to relax and visit the hot pools, which were really cool. That night our hostel ran an event called Pizza Fest, in which you paid $20 for 2 hours of all you can eat pizza – I was in heaven!

From rainy Franz Josef we then arrived in sunny Wanaka, which was my favourite place in New Zealand just because of how unbelievably beautiful it is! Before arriving in Wanaka we stopped off in Fox Glacier, home to Lake Matheson. We were given time to get off the bus and do the two hour walk around the whole lake, which is absolutely breathtaking. There is one viewpoint in particular where Mt Cook can be seen rising up over the lake. The water is so calm that it reflects a perfect mirror image. None of us could believe how beautiful it was!

Once we had arrived in Wanaka we decided to spend the day by the lake and have a picnic whilst enjoying the sun. We had also been told about the Wanaka tree, which is supposedly the most photographed tree in the whole of New Zealand! We decided we needed to see this for ourselves so went for a walk to go and find it that afternoon. Safe to say it did not disappoint and truly was outstandingly beautiful.

imageimage

The next day we ambitiously decided to climb Roy’s Peak, which takes about 3 and a half to four hours to reach the top. Having done the tongariro crossing, which is a lot longer, I thought this would be easy in comparison… But I was so wrong. There were very few flat sections, so we found ourselves climbing up the side of a mountain for the best part of 4 hours in 25 degree heat. Although it was a struggle and not something I would willingly put myself through again the views all the way up and especially from the peak were absolutely stunning!

imageimage

After Wanaka we headed to Queenstown, which is in very strong contention with Wanaka for being my favourite place in NZ. We were especially excited because we would be meeting up with a couple of friends who had been on our Stray bus previously! The day we arrived happened to be St Patrick’s Day and the whole town was absolutely buzzing as a result. We quickly got into the spirit ourselves and had a brilliant night celebrating! The next day we were feeling a little worse for wear, which gave us the perfect excuse to try the infamous Ferg burger, which has made a huge name for itself and which we’d been hearing about since before we even arrived in NZ! Safe to say it did not disappoint and was without a doubt the BEST (and probably the biggest) burger I have ever had in my life!

image

Being the adventure capital of the world, it would have been wrong not to try one of the extreme activities that Queenstown has to offer. Unable to muster up the courage to do the world’s longest bungee jump, we decided instead to do the canyon swing. This involved throwing ourselves off a 109m high platform, free falling, and ending in a swing. There are supposedly over 70 different ways that you can jump off so Hannah and I decided to do it in tandem.. backwards…! The feeling of free falling was 100 times worse than with a skydive because you literally just feel like you are falling with nothing attached to you. Hannah and I were so scared we couldn’t even scream. Once we reached the bottom and started swinging we were both caught in a fit of giggles, unable to quite believe what we had just done. It was so so scary but absolutely awesome at the same time!

image

Before leaving Queenstown we decided to go up the gondola to see the panoramic views of the whole town. Just like Wanaka it was absolutely beautiful and hard to believe that people actually live and work so close to such beautiful scenery.

image

Sadly our time in New Zealand was coming to an end, but not before our last stop – Mt Cook. We only had one afternoon here before we were due to leave for Christchurch the next morning so we decided to spend it doing the Hunter Valley walk. The walk itself was pretty easy, being all fairly flat and only taking about an hour and a half one way. The view of the mountain once we reached the end was absolutely amazing and just goes to further show what an absolutely stunning place New Zealand is.

image

Leaving New Zealand was extremely sad – not only because we had the most wonderful time there but also because it meant that we only had 12 more days left of travelling and one more country left to visit! Next stop Vietnam!!

I STRAY’D NEW ZEALAND

So on Monday 27th February we began our hop on hop off tour with Stray. Dragging ourselves out of bed and to our pick up location at some ungodly hour we met our tour guide/bus driver/fellow backpacker Jinx. He informed us that he had been given this nickname during his first week of training with Stray because everything he touched seemed to breakdown, which boded well for our forthcoming journey. One of the best things about Stray is it gives you the opportunity to meet all sorts of people from all over the world.

Our first stop was Hahei, a beautiful area in the Coromandel. Before checking in we stopped off at hot water beach, which is located directly above a hot spring – hence the name. The beach is known for digging your own natural hot tub. I was pretty sceptical at first but it actually does work! On our first night we made a group dinner all together, consisting of barbecued steaks and sausages with salads, coleslaw, and mash. Having recently been living on a diet of eggs on toast, Hannah and I were extremely excited to be having this meal and it was a great way to bond with the group. We then had a free day in Hahei, in which we explored the nearby beach and did the coastal walk all the way to stunning Cathedral Cove Bay.

imageimage

Next stop was Raglan, which is most well known for surfing! It’s actually one of the only places in the world where you can ride the same wave for 5 minutes!! En route to Raglan we stopped at Bridal Veil Falls, which was extremely impressive.

image

Once settled in our hostel we were given the option to have a yoga session at ‘Inspiration Point’. Hannah and I jumped at the opportunity, having been wanting to try yoga since we started our trip. It was extra special to be able to do it on a platform looking over the ocean with the sound of cicadas all around us. Although our yoga skills may not have been up to par, the view most definitely was.

imageimage

After Raglan we stopped off at Waitomo on our way to Rotorua. This was one of the stops I was most looking forward to as its where you can go caving and see the glow worms. We spent a total of 4 hours working our way through the underground caves, scrambling over rocks and wading through the freezing water. The highlight was floating through a section of the caves in rubber rings where all you could see in the pitch black were thousands of tiny lights from the glow worms that clung to the ceiling. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before and looked like millions and millions of stars.

After staying one night in the geothermal town of Rotorua, we moved on to Lake Aniphenua where we would be staying in a Maori village. Having been delayed an hour due to our bus breaking down, we were extremely happy to arrive and the views of the lake and surrounding scenery more than made up for it. The Maori family we were staying with were extremely welcoming and told us all about their tribe and the traditions of their people. We spent the afternoon doing various activities – some of us learnt how to make bracelets out of reeds while others learnt a special form of martial arts, including the haka which they performed for the rest of the group later that day, much to our amusement! I decided to take the cooking lesson, in which we learnt how to make special fried bread. The recipe itself was pretty straightforward and a lot of fun to make. The pressure was on as the bread we were making would be used for the group dinner that night! Once we had finished we got to try the bread with golden syrup – it was so delicious!

image

That night we had the most incredible traditional Maori feast prepared for us. To prepare the meat they wrapped it all up and placed it in a hole in the ground in which they used fire and water to smoke it. They covered it in tarpaulin and damp sheets and buried it all under soil to keep the heat in. It was then left to cook for 2 hours and by the time it was ready it had a wonderful smokey flavour. With the meat we had stuffing, potatoes, salad and our homemade bread. After that meal I had never felt so uncomfortably full in my life, but the food was so delicious it was definitely worth it!

imageimage

Look out for my next post to hear about my adventures in the sky…

SYD-NYE

First things first, Happy New Year to you all!! I can hardly believe that it is now 2017 and I am already over a month into my trip!

Hannah and I had a fantastic New Year’s Eve in Sydney. We decided to treat ourselves to a dinner out at a Japanese restaurant called Saké in the Rocks in Sydney. The meal was some of the best sushi we’d ever had, including popcorn tempura prawns with spicy mayo and selections of sashimi, nigiri, and sushi rolls! We were in heaven!!

image

After the meal we went to a nightclub called The Argyle, also in The Rocks – very near the Sydney harbour. We enjoyed a few drinks there before walking over to the harbour bridge to catch a glimpse of the famous Sydney fireworks! Safe to say they did not disappoint – I would even have to admit that they are better than London’s!

image

Since New Year’s Eve we decided to explore some of the other beaches in Sydney, including Manly beach and Palm beach. One of the best things about our trip to Manly was the journey there. You have to catch a ferry from Sydney harbour, which goes right past the harbour bridge and opera house and gave us stunning views of the Sydney coastline.

image

image.jpeg

My favourite beach we visited was definitely Palm Beach, which you might know from the tv program Home & Away. We had to get a 2 hour bus ride there, but it was definitely worth it! After grabbing a bite to eat we spent a couple of hours relaxing on the beach. The highlight of the day was doing the lighthouse walk up Barrenjoey headland. It was only about a 20 minute walk up there but it was very steep so quite a challenge in flip flops! Once we reached the top the views were absolutely breathtaking!

image

Sometimes when you’re travelling for an extended time and are without home comforts it’s good to do things that you would do at home to make you feel normal! We decided to go to the cinema and it actually made me temporarily forget that I was in Australia. We saw Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard’s new film Allied and I cannot stress enough that it is a MUST SEE – definitely one of the best films I’ve seen in a while! It was one of those films where with only five minutes left you still don’t know how it’s going to end. Set during World War II, it tells the story of a Canadian intelligence officer and a French resistance fighter who meet on an assassination mission in Casablanca and fall in love. In a world plagued by suspicion and unrest, Pitt’s character is ultimately forced to grapple with his undying love and trust for his wife and the British government’s suspicions of her true identity. I won’t give too much away, all I will say is that it perfectly balances romance and drama and won’t leave a dry eye in the house.

Now, taking my analytical English lit graduate hat off…. On the walk back to the hostel after the film we decided to stop off in a lovely little chocolate shop on Bondi road that we’ve been eyeing up for days. We each bought a few of their freshly made choccies, which were to die for! My personal favourite was the salted caramel chocolate heart!

Continuing along the theme of food, we visited some wonderful bars and cafes while in Sydney. Three words: wine, cheese & hiphop. If I told you that it’s possible to visit a bar that combines all three you’d probably think I was crazy. But such a place does exist and it’s amazing!! It’s called Big Poppa’s on Oxford Street and if you’re a fan of these three things, like I am, then I urge you to visit it if you’re ever in Sydney.

image

Also, Preach cafe on bondi beach serves the most yummy (and healthy!) food! It wasn’t until the waiter had visited our table 3 times that we finally decided what we wanted to eat as there were far too many amazing things to choose from. We even took a picture of the menu so that later that evening we could make our own version of their zucchini noodles, with chicken, pesto, tomatoes, avocado, and pine nuts!

image

Before leaving Sydney we were determined to visit the Blue Mountains. We decided to do it through a tour company advertised through our hostel called Oz Tours. Unfortunately, the tour itself was quite disappointing, as they made a number of mistakes with our booking and the actual tour itself was poor, unless you were willing to pay extra for the activities offered at each stop. Thankfully, being able to see the beautiful blue mountains and specifically the Three Sisters made up for it!

image

As I write we are currently on our way to Byron Bay, where temperatures are being reported at 47 degrees Celsius – wish me luck!!!

Bye for now,

Jess

AIN’T NO MOUNTAIN HIGH ENOUGH…

image

As much as I loved Gili T and Lombok, it has been great to explore some of the regions of the Balinese mainland. Despite its size, Bali is such a diverse island, with Seminyak at one end of the scale, being a modern and bustling city, and ubud being at the totally opposite end, bursting with traditional Balinese culture and picturesque scenes.

Ubud was a great place for the bucket list. You might remember from my first post that one of the things I wanted to do whilst in Bali was to climb to the summit of Mt Batur in time to watch the sunrise. Well, I did it! And it was one of the most challenging, rewarding, and breathtaking experiences (both in the literal and metaphorical sense!!). Hannah and I were both apprehensive about the 2am wake up and the long, and by no means easy, climb to the top. However, once we finally reached the summit at 6am, just as the sun was beginning to peek over the surrounding mountains and scenery, it was all worth it.

image

Our experience of climbing Mt Batur was made even more incredible by our sighting of macaques (Balinese long-tailed monkeys) on our way down the mountain. There were so many of them, including little baby monkeys which were adorable. They were extremely tame and so would happily jump on your back, making for an excellent selfie opportunity! As part of the trek we also visited the famous coffee plantation and rice patties of Ubud.

image

Later that afternoon, Hannah and I decided that we hadn’t quite had enough of monkeys and so we went to visit the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary. Not only is this nature reserve full of macaques, but it is also home to a beautiful Hindu temple.

Our final day in Ubud was spent at one of Bali’s small zoos, which is home to a number of ginormous elephants and baby orangutangs. Having never seen an elephant in the flesh before, I was stunned at the size of them. It was great to get the chance to ride on top of one. However, the highlight of the day was getting to cuddle and take a selfie with a baby orang.

image

I would describe Canngu as a happy medium between Ubud and Seminyak; slightly bigger and more modern than Ubud, but far less developed and more relaxed than Seminyak. The highlight of Canngu for me was the food we got to try whilst there, especially the breakfasts and the traditional Indonesian dishes.

image

For our final couple of days in Bali we returned to Seminyak and enjoyed a relaxing day at Potato Head Beach Club, which is definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area.

Next stop, Australia!…..

Island life

So the first week of my travels has been completely jam-packed, hence my delay in updating my blog – sorry! 

Our unexpected stop-over:

It’s safe to say our journey to Bali wasn’t exactly straight forward! And I thought packing would be my biggest challenge!!

After we said our emotional goodbyes to our parents, we were off! Everything was going as planned.. Up until it came to trying to land in Doha! The pilot began the descent a total of three times, with each one resulting in him pulling back up and changing course. Eventually we were informed we would have to land in Bahrain and wait there due to poor weather in Doha. By the time we did make it to Doha we had missed our flight connection and so were put up in a hotel until the next flight which was at 3.15am. We finally touched down in Bali at 5.30pm local time, a full 13 hours after we had been scheduled to arrive there.  

Living the Contiki dream:

Thankfully, our first week in Bali has more than made up for our difficulty in getting here. We booked onto the Bali Island Hopper tour with a company called Contiki, which took us to Gili Trawangan and Lombok – you should definitely look them up if you’re thinking of travelling, they run tours all over the world! We made some amazing friends on the tour, who we hope to catch up with again on our travels! 

Main tour highlights were:

  • Everything about Gili T! 

I fell in love with this little island. It has absolutely no motorised transport so we hired bikes to get around or rode in cidamos (little horse-drawn carts). Everything about the island was vibrant and colourful, from the turquoise blue seas, to the striking sunsets over the beaches. Even the horses were dressed up in brightly coloured accessories, like headdresses and ankle bracelets. 

  • Snorkelling with turtles in Gili. 

The whole group went out snorkelling on our second day. The clarity of the water meant that there was so much to see, and being able to swim with turtles was definitely a highlight! 

  • Trying the Indonesian food. 

I am a massive foody, so getting to try the local cuisine was great. My favourite dishes were their famous beef randang, chicken satay, and a Balinese style chilli con carne! All the restaurants we went to in both Gili and Lombok were amazing. One in particular being in Gili, called Casa Vintage, where we ate whilst sat on cushions on the beach around a small hand-made wooden table with a bonfire and lanterns. 

  • Surfing in Sengiggi. 

This place is famous for its waves. With most of the group being beginners, it was great to have our own instructors and by the end of the day everyone managed to stand up – me included to my surprise! 

  • Massages in Lombok. 

You’re unlikely to believe me when I tell you that I was able to have an hour full body massage and an hour foot massage for under £15! Their cheap price was in no way a reflection of the quality of the massages though, which were amazing!!

We never wanted this tour to end or to say goodbye to the wonderful people we’d met. 

Now the tour is over we are back in mainland Bali for another week and are currently staying in Seminyak. In a couple of days we will be travelling to Ubud, which is further inland. I’ll let you know how I get on in these places soon!

Bye for now!

Jess